The moral imperative

by Chris Honor&


Domestically, it's been all about politics. The democratic primary continues, with early June likely to bring closure. Or not. Internationally, the news has been filled with calamitous images from Burma and China, both countries visited by natural disasters on a staggering scale. The 8.0 earthquake that hit Sichuan Province in China, on May 12, took the lives of more than 12,000 with countless missing. Cyclone Nargis swept across Burma, destroying houses and indiscriminately killing hundreds of thousands, especially in the Irrawady Delta. The ruling junta puts the death toll at 30,000; U.N. estimates are over 100,000. The response of the two countries has been striking. China, after its heavy-handed response to earlier protests in Tibet, has responded quickly and decisively, and the wrenching news coverage has involved little if any dissembling.

The Burmese junta, in the hours and days after Nargis struck, demonstrated that it cared more about its paranoid hold on power than its own people and so the suffering of the Burmese people will continue, evolving into a post-cyclone tragedy. In the weeks ahead, starvation and disease will impact the survivors as the junta blocks any serious efforts at delivering aid.

Relief workers estimate that after a disaster of this magnitude, there is a ten day window wherein aid (food, clean water, medical supplies) must be on the ground and delivered by relief personnel. Otherwise what is already a devastating event will be compounded geometrically. Cholera, meningitis and typhoid will take hold with epidemic swiftness. The people of Burma, like most poor third world countries, already live with a grinding poverty, lacking few amenities taken for granted in the first world: it is estimated that prior to the cyclone, 75 percent of the Burmese had no latrines (2.6 billion people worldwide have no access to sanitary toilets), a reality now exacerbated by the storm. Out of desperation available water, now filled with human feces (a gram of human excrement can contain up to 10 million viruses), is treated as potable. Many of the waterborne diseases are communicable and when people are crowded together and on the move, whole regions become petri dishes for chronic and life threatening illnesses.

As well, it has been reported that the junta, known to be one of the world's most corrupt and repressive, has co-opted what aid has managed to gain entry, and there are rumors that it is used for the military or sold. The behavior of these ruling military leaders has been despicable. And should they begin to yield to world outrage, much of the aid, which has been waiting in foreign airports and on ships off the Burma coast, will be too little too late.

Watching this humanitarian tragedy unfold poses an interesting question for the world community, most specifically the United Nations. According to the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1674, member states have a "responsibility to protect" populations from genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity should their own governments fail to do so. It is a clear mandate, and a moral imperative which is indisputable. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Burmese are at risk, desperate for the world community to act since their own government has all but refused to respond.

Romesh Ratnesar, in a recent essay in Newsweek, challenges the U.N. and world leaders to initiate what he calls coercive humanitarian aid, undertaken without the permission of the ruling government. What becomes too quickly obvious is that in spite of resolution 1674, the United Nations is incapable of acting with consensus in a timely manner.

Sadly, this organization, uniquely structured to step forward, has failed to do so time after time. An example is the ongoing humanitarian crisis which continues in Darfur, after five years of debate and discussion, with agencies and individuals pleading for intervention. Yet still innocents are raped and killed with wanton brutality, their homes and animals destroyed. Ironically, the U.N. estimates that the death toll in Darfur is 300,000, with 2.45 million displaced. All efforts of assistance have stalled. Rwanda is another example of how the U.N. has played for time until time passed, the carnage complete, and crimes against humanity breathtaking in their scope. Rwandans killed approaches a million. Before Rwanda were the killing fields of Cambodia, where an estimated 1.7 people lost their lives to the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge.

The crisis in Burma once again begs the question of international responsibility as framed in 1674 and whether coercive humanitarian aid is appropriate. Though the U.N. is predicated on the full meaning of national sovereignty, are there not moments in history when the world community should come to the aid of a people while suspending all considerations of sovereignty?

Or, if the U.N. cannot muster the will, then does the United States not have an obligation to seek a coalition of the willing prepared to intervene? The Clinton legacy will always be blemished by the administration's failure to act on behalf of the Rwandans. The legacy of George W. Bush will be marked by this president's failure to use assertively his bully pulpit and coercive intervention on behalf of the people of Darfur. Reaching back into history, to W.W.II, has there not been an ongoing debate regarding the failure of the international community to act when first word arrived of the holocaust? And did that same community not say, "Never again"?

Of course, given the current context, the idea of invading another country, even to deliver humanitarian aid, may give some pause. But what is our moral obligation to those countless innocents in Burma whose government has failed them? It is a question that is little debated and should be. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

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