THE BLOG
05/13/2008 04:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Limits of "Doing Something" in Burma

Even as thousands of Burmese continue to die in the swath of wreckage created by Cyclone Nargis, the ruling junta seems determined to keep the international community out -- an act of epic negligence, given that the aid is ready to flow, and international organizations ready to deploy thousands of relief workers. This situation has provoked various calls for action, the generals be damned.

In response, we're getting a chorus of voices urging the world to intervene. But they don't spell out exactly how. "Yes, we should help the Burmese, even against the will of their irrational leaders," writes Anne Applebaum. "Yes, we should think hard about the right way to do it. And, yes, there isn't much time to ruminate about any of this." In other words, no idea.

Some are calling on the United Nations, which in 2005 declared its collective "responsibility to protect" victims of state-sponsored violence or negligence -- in essence saying that states could not use sovereignty as a shield to exempt themselves from responsibility. Here's the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt:

But the stalemate in Burma, also known as Myanmar, shows how difficult it is to translate "responsibility to protect" into action. It's hard to imagine a government more deserving of losing the national equivalent of its parental rights; yet it seems more likely that hundreds of thousands of people will die needlessly than that the United Nations will act.

It is indeed difficult to translate the UN's vague commitment (the R2P program's website says it is "an evolving concept," which means a still-unformed one) into action in this case -- not because the UN doesn't have its act together, but because there is not really much it can do to force Burma to open its borders.

Imagine, for a moment, that the international community tried to gin up a multinational force to accompany aid workers and help distribute relief supplies over the objections of the Burmese leadership. This might take weeks to organize; even if it could be done by this Friday, its mission would be dangerously muddled. It would be a relief force, but also a provocation and a target.

Perhaps the generals will conclude it has too much to lose in a hostile response and stand aside. But this is a deeply eccentric, unpredictable regime, and the stakes very, very high. Do we want to gamble on the likely response with the lives of relief workers?

Lamentably, there is very little the international community can do when the rulers of a xenophobic police state decide to shut it out. Realistically, some food and supplies can be airdropped into targeted areas. But to have an impact on a disaster of this scale, you need people on the ground -- lots of them -- to distribute food, provide medical care and supplies, and clean up. And they need to operate in safety. In other words, you need the cooperation of the local authorities. Maybe this cooperation can still be achieved. If it isn't, the result will be yet another terrible crime perpetrated by the SLORC. But declaring that "something must be done" without an idea of what is just moral posturing, something that's only gotten us into trouble in international affairs of late.

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