The decision by the government of Myanmar not to admit foreign humanitarian relief workers to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis has been met with fury, consternation and disbelief in much of the world.
With tens of thousands of people dead, up to 100,000 missing and more than a million displaced and without shelter, livelihood or possibly even sufficient food, the refusal of the military rulers of the country to let in foreign aid organizations or to open airports and waterways in more than a token way to shipments of aid supplies seems to be an act of sheer barbarism.
In response, Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who heads the International Crisis Group, made the case last week that the decision by Myanmar’s authorities to default on their responsibilities to their own citizens might well constitute “a crime against humanity,” and suggested that the United Nations might need to consider bringing aid to Myanmar non-consensually, justified on the basis of the “Responsibility to Protect Resolution” adopted at the 2005 U.N. World Summit by 150 member states.
To be sure, R2P (as the resolution is colloquially known) was not envisaged by the commission that framed it (and that Evans co-chaired) as a response to natural disasters, but rather as a way of confronting “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” To extend its jurisdiction to natural disasters is as unprecedented as it is radical. But as Evans put it last week, “when a government default is as grave as the course on which [Myanmar’s] generals now seem to be set, there is at least a prima facie case to answer for their intransigence being a crime against humanity -- of a kind that would attract the responsibility-to-protect principle.”
Evans’ warning was clear. Myanmar’s generals should not delude themselves into thinking that the international community would allow them to act in any way they wished -- not if it meant turning a blind eye to the dangers the cyclone’s survivors faced. These dangers, according to the British charity Oxfam, threatened an additional 1.5 million lives.
And a number of European governments took the same line. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband stated that military action to ensure that the aid got to where it needed to go might be legal and necessary. And French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner echoed this argument, saying that France was considering bringing a resolution to the U.N. Security Council allowing for such steps to be taken.
For Kouchner, a co-founder of the French relief group Doctors Without Borders, this was familiar ground. He was a leading, and controversial, figure in the relief world long before joining Nicolas Sarkozy’s government last year, and he is one of the originators of the so-called right of interference -- a hawkish interpretation of humanitarianism’s moral imperative and an operational license that basically held that outside aid groups and governments had a presumptive right to intervene when governments abused their own people.
At first glance, the arguments of Evans, Miliband, Kouchner and the leaders of many mainstream relief organizations may seem like common-sense humanism. How could it be morally acceptable to subordinate the rights of people in need to the prerogatives of national sovereignty? In a globalized world in which people, goods and money all move increasingly freely, why should a national border -- that relic of the increasingly unimportant state system -- stand in the way of people dedicated to doing good for their fellow human beings? Why should the world stand by and allow an abusive government to continue to be derelict in its duties toward its own people?
Surely, to oppose this sort of humanitarian entitlement is a failure of empathy and perhaps even an act of moral cowardice.
This has been the master narrative of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. It has dominated the speeches of officials and most of the media coverage, which has been imbued with an almost pornographic catastrophism in which aid agencies and journalists seem to be trying to outdo each other in the apocalyptic quality of their predictions. First, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, without having left the city, told reporters that though only 22,000 people had been confirmed dead, she thought the toll could rise as high as 100,000. A few days later, Oxfam was out with its estimate of 1.5 million people being at risk from water-borne diseases -- without ever explaining how it arrived at such an extraordinarily alarming estimate.
In reality, no one yet knows what the death toll from the cyclone is, let alone how resilient the survivors will be. One thing is known, however, and that is that in crisis after crisis, from the refugee emergency in eastern Zaire after the Rwandan genocide, through the Kosovo crisis, to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the 2004 South Asian tsunami, many of the leading aid agencies, Oxfam prominent among them, have predicted far more casualties than there would later turn out to have been.
In part, this is because relief work is, in a sense, a business, and humanitarian charities are competing with every other sort of philanthropic cause for the charitable dollar and euro, and thus have to exaggerate to be noticed. It is also because coping with disasters for a living simply makes the worst-case scenario always seem the most credible one, and, honorably enough, relief workers feel they must always be prepared for the worst.
But whatever the motivations, it is really no longer possible to take the relief community’s apocalyptic claims seriously. It has wrongly cried wolf too many times.
We should be skeptical of the aid agencies’ claims that, without their intervention, an earthquake or cyclone will be followed by an additional disaster of equal scope because of disease and hunger. The fact is that populations in disaster zones tend to be much more resilient than foreign aid groups often make them out to be. And though the claim that only they can prevent a second catastrophe is unprovable, it serves the agencies’ institutional interests -- such interventions are, after all, the reason they exist in the first place.
Unwelcome as the thought may be, reasonable-sounding suggestions made in the name of global solidarity and humanitarian compassion can sometimes be nothing of the sort. Aid is one thing. But aid at the point of a gun is taking the humanitarian enterprise to a place it should never go. And the fact that the calls for humanitarian war were ringing out within days of Cyclone Nargis is emblematic of how the interventionist impulse, no matter how well-intended, is extremely dangerous.
The ease with which the rhetoric of rescue slips into the rhetoric of war is why invoking R2P should never be accepted simply as an effort to inject some humanity into an inhumane situation (the possibility of getting the facts wrong is another reason; that too has happened in the past). Yes, the impulse of the interveners may be entirely based on humanitarian and human rights concerns. But lest we forget, the motivations of 19th century European colonialism were also presented by supporters as being grounded in humanitarian concern. And this was not just hypocrisy. We must not be so politically correct as to deny the humanitarian dimension of imperialism. But we must also not be so historically deaf, dumb and blind as to convince ourselves that it was its principal dimension.
Lastly, it is critically important to pay attention to just who is talking about military intervention on humanitarian grounds. Well, among others, it’s the foreign ministers of the two great 19th century colonial empires. And where exactly do they want to intervene -- sorry, where do they want to live up to their responsibility to protect? Mostly in the very countries they used to rule.
When a British or French minister proposes a U.N. resolution calling for a military intervention to make sure aid is properly delivered in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, then, and only then, can we be sure we have put the specter of imperialism dressed up as humanitarianism behind us. In the meantime, buyer beware.
David Rieff is the author of many books, including “At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention” and “A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.”