While the generals ruling Myanmar were drastically limiting international aid for the many thousands of victims of the recent cyclone, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington dismissed the urgent cries for forceful outside intervention.
“Myanmar is a sovereign country,” said Wand Baodong on May 20. “In the end, rescue and relief work will have to rely on the Myanmar government.”
Sudan’s General Omar al-Bashir and every other dictator in the world heartily joined China in pointing to the U.N. Charter of 1945 (Article 2/7), which declares: “Nothing should authorize intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” That’s how al-Bashir has been able to obstruct every serious U.N. resolution to end the genocide and mass rapes in his domain.
Toward the end of his tenure as U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan strongly advocated an essentially revolutionary reform of the U.N.’s basic structure. Annan had been deeply remorseful about his unyielding refusal, as head of the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations in 1994, to act on signs in Rwanda indicating the start of what became genocide there. A U.N. commander in Rwanda, Roméo Dallaire, had been sending anguished messages to Annan that he could stop the imminent genocide on the ground with a few thousand more troops. But Dallaire’s pleas were ultimately rebuffed, with deadly consequences for as many as a million Tutsis.
Finally, at the 2005 U.N. World Summit marking the U.N.’s 50th anniversary, 150 member states passed a measure called the Responsibility to Protect (“R2P” in U.N.-speak). R2P mandates that the international community must protect people from massive human-rights abuses—genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity—wherever they occur, as well as other humanitarian crises. And when states clearly fail to protect their own citizens, then forceful action must be taken by the international community.
On May 18, appalled by the growing crisis in Myanmar, British prime minister Gordon Brown said that the natural disaster was being made “into a man-made catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people.”
Where was the principle of R2P? French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and a man acutely responsive to human-rights abuses anywhere, said impatiently in Paris (as quoted in The Economist, May 17): “It would only take half an hour for the French boats and helicopters in southeast Asia to reach the disaster area.”
As the BBC reported, at the United Nations, following Kouchner’s instructions, the French ambassador accused the Burmese generals of being “on the verge of committing crimes against humanity.” In response, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sidestepped the charges (as he often does), noting that “the responsibility to protect is an important concept, but for now, we should devote energies to saving lives”—i.e., by diplomatic intervention.
This didn’t satisfy Kouchner, for whom I have growing admiration: By May 19, he argued that “the United Nations should intervene by force, or it would be guilty of cowardice in the eyes of the world” (The New York Times, May 20). Kouchner added on French radio—dig this, Ban Ki-moon!—that “what we need to bring is hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart help, not donor conferences with all their bowing and scraping. In the meantime, people are dying.”
At another point, Kouchner invoked the actual words of the U.N.’s Responsibility to Protect mandate, asserting that the Burmese junta could be “guilty of crimes against humanity.”
Then the customary minuet of death took over. George Yeo, the foreign minister of Singapore, told the Times on May 20 that delivering aid by force “will create unnecessary complication [and] will only lead to more suffering for Myanmar’s people.”
As the prospect of concerted action under R2P faded away, Myanmar’s ally, China—which has veto power in the U.N. Security Council—warned that all countries must show “due respect” to Myanmar, its borders, and its sovereignty. Currently, the Burmese generals have deigned to allow some aid in, even as they limit access to the hardest-hit areas.Which reminds me how much I miss Tony Blair: Whatever his flaws, he was one of the very few world leaders for whom “human rights” wasn’t just a catch phrase. After there actually had been a human-rights intervention by force in Kosovo—although by NATO, not the U.N., and with the reluctant involvement of President Bill Clinton—Blair, speaking in Chicago, emphasized the need for a “just war, based not on territorial ambition, but on values.” That was the very point of the U.N.’s Responsibility to Protect resolution.
After nearly 20 years of reporting on the likes of Sudan’s General al-Bashir and, more recently, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, I’m convinced there are times when the only way to rescue the surviving victims of such monsters is to bypass the U.N. with a league of democratic nations, enough of whose citizens are driven by a visceral need to protect the human rights of people being terrorized by their own sovereign governments.
For many years, I considered myself a nonviolent, direct-action pacifist, one who was greatly influenced by the lessons of the late A.J. Muste, who, Martin Luther King Jr. told me, first turned him onto nonviolent action. A.J. was also a key strategist of the anti–Vietnam War movement. I wrote a book, Peace Agitator, about Muste in time for him to see it before he died.
However, I am forced to conclude, after many decades spent reporting on and witnessing the evidence, that there is such a thing as immutable evil in this world—as personified by, among others, Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir. By advocating the use of force to save their victims, I feel I have betrayed A.J., and probably that part of myself that made me a pacifist. But with General al-Bashir breaking the 2005 peace treaty that put a stop to his 20-year war against black Christians and animists in the south of Sudan—in which over two million people have already died—only force will prevent the opening of (to quote one Western observer there) “the gates of hell.”
CORRECTION: In a recent column (“Keeping Jazz Makers Alive,” May 14), I repeated a story I’d heard for years from jazz musicians, that piano phenom Phineas Newborn was buried in a pauper’s grave. His grandson, Phineas Newborn III, called up to say that he’s also often heard that rumor, but that it isn’t true. Newborn, in fact, was buried with honors at a veterans’ cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1989.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 3, 2008