Jorge Heine

The jury is still out on what to do when dictators mismanage disasters to the point of inflicting severe suffering on their own people.

General Tan Shwe (Tan Who?) is not exactly a household word. But Myanmar’s strongman and top military honcho, by now 16 years in power, made a strong claim for the “Dictator of the Year” Award in 2008 for the manner in which he and his ruling junta reacted to the cyclone that hit his country, the former Burma on May 2, killing 135,000 people and endangering the lives of several million. Consider the following, straight out of the Manual for the Perfect Third World Tyrant:

— Warned of the cyclone on April 30 by India’s Meteorological Department, it did nothing to warn the population or otherwise gear up for the upcoming storm.

— Once hit by the 12-foot high Cyclone Nargis, instead of prioritising emergency relief, the military regime continued to channel most of its energies to organising a referendum to be held a week later to legitimise the junta’s rule.

— Rather than getting himself quickly to the scene of the tragedy, the fertile Irrawaddy Delta in Southwestern Myanmar that produces two-thirds of the country’s rice crop, to get a sense of what was going on and provide succour to his people, the 75-year old General Shwe stayed upcountry, presumably concerned with more pressing matters, for over two weeks — not until May 18 did he finally deign to descend from the Olympus to show his face to the 2.4 million surviving storm victims.

— Far from opening the doors of his largely closed-off country to international cooperation, he adamantly refused to do so, denying visas to international NGO and United Nations staff ready to come in and help out. “Give us the stuff, and we’ll distribute it” said the government. To judge from the way the military has run Myanmar until now, this was a sure recipe for not getting the blankets, food and medicines quickly (or at all) into the right hands.

— This was particularly ironic, since on few occasions has the international community been as ready to help out as on this one — after the steep learning curve of the 2004 tsunami which hit South and Southeast Asia, in which Indonesia and Sri Lanka immediately opened themselves to international aid and made the most of it. The notion of the USS Essex with a 2200 crew and a fleet of 60 helicopters stationed only a few miles outside Myanmar, ready to help, but not allowed to do so, boggles the mind: as The Wall Street Journal put it: “the Essex alone has the capacity to turn 200,000 gallons of sea water into fresh drinking water every day … Clean, fresh water is one key to survival for more than one million people displaced by the cyclone.”

— Three weeks after the disaster, the general relented, reportedly ready to receive Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. Secretary General, (whose phone calls he had refused to take) and to selectively give visas to some Asian NGOs to help out in post-disaster relief.

Yet, however stark the tragedy in Myanmar, for long subjected to one of the harshest and most closed-off military dictatorships, its true significance reaches well beyond its borders.

As climate change continues to wreak havoc, and global warming makes the weather less predictable (the monsoon in Delhi has been six weeks early this year), natural disasters will become more frequent. The way governments react to them is key. This is by no means confined to the developing world. What happened with Hurricane Katrina in the United States in August 2005, a predictable and perfectly avoidable disaster if there has ever been one, is an object lesson on how governments in the North can fail quite abjectly in this task as well, both in prevention and in post-disaster relief.

By and large, though, it is the poor in the developing world who suffer the most from these calamities, and it is their plight that the Burmese junta’s “denialist” approach has highlighted.

What is to be done?

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, not for nothing the founder of Medicins sans Frontieres, put his finger on the spot when, in reaction to the obstruction of foreign relief efforts in the Burmese delta, he asked the international community to consider just moving in, invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Conceptualised by the Canadian-funded International Commission on State Sovereignty and Intervention (of which Mr. Kouchner was a member), which unfortunately delivered its report in late 2001 (at a time when world public opinion was otherwise engaged), R2P reflects the emerging consensus that the world cannot stand idly by while hundreds of thousands of people are killed or let die, and their human rights otherwise trampled upon.

Triggered by tragedies such as those witnessed in Rwanda, Srebernica and East Timor in the 1990s, and given fresh impetus by Darfur today, the notion of Humanitarian Intervention (HI) took the world of international law by storm, quickly turning into one of the most contested and controversial concepts. Its key proposition is that “human rights trump sovereignty”, and that the very idea that the world must stand idly by while governments proceed to massacre (or alternatively, allow to die of famine or other natural, albeit preventable, causes) vast numbers of their population, is no longer acceptable.

Not surprisingly, the very juxtaposition of “humanitarian” with “intervention,” which for some constitute an oxymoron, led to its recasting in more politically correct terms by the said Commission, hence R2P. Although the main responsibility for the protection of any given population lies with its government, if the latter for some reason abdicates that responsibility, and vast and systematic human rights violations start to take place (either condoned or instigated by the government nominally in control of that territory), the international community would have the right to intervene to protect that population.

Although the notion is still controversial, and many states, especially big powers like the United States, China, India and Russia are quite leery of it, it was formally adopted by the United Nations in a 2005 resolution, thus giving it official standing. Most recently, the U.N. Security Council approved a unanimous resolution to intervene in Darfur largely on the strength of an R2P-like reasoning, though, perhaps revealingly, no western country has yet been able to come up with the troops needed to reinforce those from the African Union present in Sudan, and effectively put an end to the genocide that is taking place there.

Should R2P have been invoked after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar and the junta turned away international help, thus endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands?

‘If not now, when?’

“If not now, when?” is the view of many who believe the development of new concepts in international law are hardly worth the effort (an office has recently been set up in New York to lobby the U.N. and its member states for the application of R2P) if they are to remain in the somewhat ethereal domain of high-level conferences and university seminars, without ever being confronted with their application in an imperfect world, where the ideal conditions for such interventions will never fully obtain. If not in the case of an obscurantist military regime that has shown wilful disregard for its own people, to the point of denying visas to health and relief workers and not allowing helicopters with supplies to fly in, when?

Others, like my CIGI colleague Ramesh Thakur, one of the creators of the concept as a leading member of the above-mentioned Commission, are more circumspect. They point out that although “natural disasters” was originally among the categories mentioned by the Commission as qualifying for R2P, by the time the U.N. adopted the notion in 2005 the item was dropped, and is therefore no longer pertinent. Chinese opposition in the Security Council to any such initiative in Myanmar does not help either.

The jury is therefore still out on what to do when dictators mismanage disasters to the point of inflicting severe suffering on their own people. Interestingly, China was much more open to international cooperation and relief when afflicted with the recent earthquake in Sichuan that left 70,000 dead a few days after Nargis hit Myanmar. But there is little doubt that more and more dictators around the globe find themselves under the magnifying glass. They can run, but they can’t hide.

(Jorge Heine is CIGI Professor of Global Governance at Wilfrid Laurier University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario. He serves currently as Vice-President of the International Political Science Association).