International House of Dan: May 2008

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Military Intervention in Burma?

In the weeks since Cyclone Nargis struck Burma (Myanmar), the international community has been shocked that it is being prevented from delivering aid by the Burmese military junta. Amid mounting criticism and international calls for access to the victims of the storm, the argument is being made that military intervention on humanitarian grounds may be warranted. Some make this argument out of a general sense of outrage, but others, more convincingly, make it under the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) doctrine.

Before addressing the merits of this argument, two things should be noted: first, that prior to the recent cyclone, the Burmese people have been subjected to years of suffering under General Than Shwe and his junta. Human Rights Watch has long been monitoring the country and has documented abuses ranging from the use of child soldiers to the ongoing election irregularities that have allowed the junta to retain power; the UN General Assembly has consistently expressed its concern over the Burmese junta and its abuses. The ongoing repression of Aung San Suu Kyi has drawn condemnation for years, and the recent crackdown on protesting monks again forced world attention on Shwe's regime. Consequently, and second, in a rare moment of agreement with the US government, I join the rank of nations who, not recognizing the legitimacy of General Shwe's junta, do not acknowledge the 1989 name changes of Burma to Myanmar, and of Rangoon to Yangon.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was developed by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001, as part of UN efforts to move the organization toward action within the framework of the Charter. Heads of State adopted the doctrine during the 2005 World Summit in New York, and it has been hailed as a solution to the global inaction that allowed Rwanda and Darfur to develop as they did. On the other hand, the perceived acceptance of the doctrine by States with questionable motives has raised concerns, leading the ASIL to call the doctrine "schizophrenic." Further, while the World Summit seemed to indicate universal acceptance of the doctrine, it has become clear since that it is not... universally accepted.

There exists a general misunderstanding of the R2P doctrine in the public and in the media. As one observer has explained, "R2P does not prescribe invasion any more than the Constitution of the United States mandates impeachment." Essentially, R2P, could be seen as replacing the permissive "right of humanitarian intervention" with an affirmative duty so that States are compelled to act. The doctrine, as adopted, contains six criteria that must be met before military force can properly be used to meet the responsibility to protect: 1) just cause, 2) right intention, 3) last resort, 4) proportional means, 5) reasonable prospects, and 6) right authority. One problem, of course, arises in that States may remain hesitant to act without assurances from the global community that they are in compliance with these criteria in order to avoid responsibility for a prohibited use of force; in essence, this could be seen as R2P doing little more than providing criteria to be met in order to secure authorization under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Generally speaking, the invocation of R2P to address natural disaster relief could weaken the doctrine, as small states (and repressive states) would oppose what they perceive as an expansion of the justifications (or pretexts) under which large nations could premise military intervention. As applied to Burma, specifically, some have noted that the saber rattling associated with R2P may force the junta to further entrench itself in non-cooperation with the world community.

One thing is clear, the response of the junta to the cyclone is unacceptable, and there is a strong feeling that the world must act if the junta will not. The reality, though, is that military intervention is presumed to be prohibited because of the consequences it entails. The use of R2P to circumvent the prohibition, while tempting, is probably unsound. The sad reality is that this Burmese crisis, like all the ones before it, will probably pass from global consciousness without any State taking action. The sad reality is that this Burmese crisis will probably be overshadowed by another crisis elsewhere.