The Burma Cyclone and the Responsibility to Protect

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

July 21, 2008

I’ve been asked to comment on the international responsibility to protect (R2P) and its relationship to the cyclone in Burma.

But before looking at Burma, it’s important to ask — what does R2P mean? There is as yet insufficient international consensus on what the concept means and how to apply it. In fact, it’s an idea currently undergoing definition and interpretation. To be sure, the World Summit Outcome Document of 2005 speaks of “collective action” to protect people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity when their own governments are unwilling or unable to do so. But what exactly does collective action encompass? To some, R2P means military intervention. The concept arose, they say, in response to the failure of the international community to act effectively in Rwanda, Bosnia and other emergencies; it therefore must mean coercive action. A number of governments in the global south sometimes claim that R2P is but a new way for Western states to use military power to interfere in the domestic affairs of weaker countries. Others, however, equate R2P with taking action on just about every human rights, health and environmental problem that involves massive human suffering. Such broad application, it is pointed out, could render the concept meaningless. To the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on R2P and the Global Centre for R2P in NY, R2P involves first and foremost preventive steps. Their literature in fact says that “prevention, not intervention, lies at the heart of the doctrine.”[i] R2P, they argue, involves a wide range of diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic and political steps, including consensual military or police deployment, to try to protect people at risk. The use of force, they emphasize, should be applied only as an absolute last resort when preventive and protective steps fail. To allay fears that R2P means military intervention, its proponents sometimes go to the other extreme and make its application sound almost harmless, which also is misleading. At present, the proponents of R2P, including the UN Special Adviser, are struggling to define the concept in a way that promotes robust collective action but at the same time packages it in a non-threatening way so that it will be internationally acceptable and encourage R2P’s application. This could be mission impossible.

This background is important when considering whether Burmese government policies in response to the cyclone constitute a case of R2P. For the Foreign Minister of France, Bernard Kouchner, Burma’s denial of access to cyclone victims constituted an R2P case because the deliberate massive suffering and death caused could be defined as crimes against humanity, which R2P is supposed to address. France expressed support for the Security Council’s demanding and imposing access since the Security Council is the body that decides R2P cases. But other states in the Council like China, Russia and South Africa as well as some others blocked such steps. Opponents of coercive action argued that the cyclone was an internal matter that did not threaten international peace and security; or that coercive steps would undermine winning cooperation from the generals. Some pointed out that R2P was designed to apply to mass atrocities not to natural disaster; extending the concept to a disaster like the Burma cyclone could weaken support for R2P in the cases it was intended for. The UN humanitarian community, led by the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, opposed the coercive landing of supplies or military air drops on the grounds that it was an inefficient and also counterproductive way of delivering aid and could cause more deaths. Some pointed out that Burma’s army may have done little to help the population in the wake of the cyclone but would have done a whole lot of damage if ordered to resist an international humanitarian intervention. A little later on when the humanitarian community gained greater access to Burma and found no epidemics or mass starvation, some cited this as evidence that Burma should never have been identified as an R2P case to begin with. The UN Secretary-General and his special adviser on R2P have spoken out against extending R2P to cover the international response to natural disasters on the grounds that it would stretch the concept beyond recognition or operational utility. So there appears to be a consensus that R2P should not be applied to Burma.

A few observations:

  1. First, I don’t agree. I believe that Burma could well have been an R2P case because the disaster may have begun as a natural disaster but it quickly turned into a human-made disaster in which crimes — that could well constitute crimes against humanity — were committed, with many needless deaths resulting. At the same time, saying that R2P should apply does not necessarily mean that military intervention should have been undertaken but rather that the Security Council should have met to consider what steps to take and should have used the R2P umbrella to galvanize political and humanitarian action. Having the threat of stronger action in the background could then have been used as leverage. In fact, some R2P proponents considered that Kouchner’s ‘bad cop’ role served to push the junta to cooperate with the UN and ASEAN, the ‘good cops.’ So while it is true that most natural disasters would not fit the R2P definition, in the Burma case, it should not have been so easily ruled out. Gareth Evans, one of the architects of R2P, has pointed out that “when a government default is as grave as the course on which the Burmese generals now seem to be set, there is at least a prima facie case to answer for their intransigence being a crime against humanity — of a kind which would attract the responsibility to protect principle.” [ii]
  2. Second, whether or not one considers R2P applicable to Burma, much work needs to be done to clarify the concept and mobilize international support around its implementation. After all it’s a new idea without clear lines of application, which has led to exaggerated expectations about its use and misconceptions about its meaning. One step forward would be effective criteria for deciding in which situations the Security Council should act; another would be a guide to what should happen when the Security Council fails to act. The World Summit document mentions regional organizations, and in the Burma emergency, ASEAN has played an important role in diplomatic initiatives to open up access and in coordinating aid. But it needs far greater capacity and political support to be truly effective, which is something the United States and the United Nations could help with.
  3. Third, it would be useful to have internationally agreed upon performance standards that would measure how governments respond to disasters:[iii]
  • To begin with would be disaster preparedness – in the case of Burma, this would mean the building of cyclone shelters, and dikes and barriers to reduce flooding with the help of international bank loans. It would also mean the stockpiling of materials and the development of adequate early warning mechanisms. In Burma, advance warnings were not effectively broadcast.
  • When disaster strikes – and this is most relevant to the discussion today – and aid is needed, governments should be expected to call for outside assistance from all parties whatever their nationality. Just as donors are expected ‘to know no politics’ in providing humanitarian aid, recipient governments should know no politics in requesting and receiving it. Both Burma and China (during its earthquake) rejected non-Asian aid workers in their countries, although Burma in the end allowed in limited numbers. Rejecting aid workers on the basis of their nationality when aid workers are desperately needed violates international humanitarian principles, constitutes a politicizing of the aid effort, and costs lives. Whether such xenophobia arises from colonial history, new found nationalism, or opposition to the policies and statements of particular donor governments, the politicization of the aid effort must be thwarted.
  • When governments do not have the capacity to address a disaster, regional and international organizations should be expected to step in. There should not be a reinventing of the wheel in each disaster. In Africa, in the Great Lakes region, the principle of outside involvement when states do not have the capacity has become legally binding.
  • In countries where transparency and accountability are problems, donors should insist on independent monitoring systems. Dispensing with monitoring, as donors sometimes do, often leads to later exposure that aid did not reach the needy but helped shore up repressive regimes. The UN is currently facing this problem in Burma. Donors in such cases should also seek to contribute their aid to international organizations, NGOs and local groups rather than exclusively to governments. Working with civil society and local aid groups and strengthening their capacity should be part of any aid response, especially in Burma.
  • Beyond food, medicine and shelter, survivors have protection needs that need to be addressed. They must be protected from forcible expulsions and returns to unsustainable areas, forced labor, and discriminatory aid deliveries based on political or ethnic grounds. They must receive help in obtaining lost documentation and in applying for property claims and compensation. UN agencies have been identifying the human rights and protection needs of people uprooted by disasters and have developed guidelines.[iv]

While performance standards will be difficult to negotiate, the Burma cyclone and other disasters have brought to the fore many serious problems that need to be addressed. In addition to helping governments interested in doing the right thing, they are a way of serving notice on governments that their performance is being measured. Very importantly, they could also encourage civic empowerment. In a newspaper story it was reported that a Burmese cyclone survivor whispered to a journalist – “We don’t even know that the government has a duty to protect its people.” Yet knowing one’s rights is the first step toward accountability in times of disaster.

[i] Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, “Frequently Asked Questions,” July 2008. See also Global Centre for R2P, “The Responsibility to Protect: A Primer,” July 2008.

[ii] Gareth Evans, “Facing Up to Our Responsibilities,” The Guardian. 12 May 2008.

[iii] Roberta Cohen, “Disaster Standards Needed for Asia,” Brookings Northeast Asia Commentary Series, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, June 2008.

[iv] See UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June 2006.