Two More Cents on Burma and R2P

Seemingly everyone and their mother has lately weighed in on the subject of invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as a way of securing aid for Burma’s cyclone victims, but I wanted to add two points to the discussion.

First, by and large, the R2P doctrine has been misunderstood or misrepresented in calls to “invade” Burma. R2P is often implied to boil down to a simple equation: if a government is unable or unwilling to adequately protect its citizens, then the international community has a right to forcibly intervene to protect these people. The first part of this conditional is accurate, but the second is a gross oversimplification. R2P does not prescribe invasion any more than the Constitution of the United States mandates impeachment. Military intervention is only one component of the R2P framework, and one of last resort, at that; it is only to be undertaken when a series of specific conditions are met, ensuring that intervention is justified, well-intentioned, practical, authorized by the proper authority (i.e., the UN Security Council), and will not cause more harm than good.

Wielding R2P as a Trojan horse for invasion and regime change, as Robert Kaplan seems to desire, is harmful to the integrity and future viability of the concept, as well as to the more pressing concern of alleviating the Burmese people’s suffering. Scott Paul, writing at The Washington Note, explains this point well, in reference to just one commentator with a convoluted understanding of R2P.

Unfortunately, Hiatt (like some others), seems to equate this principle with an international obligation to trample over the sovereignty of Myanmar in one fell swoop. It would be a disaster if R2P were first operationalized in the form of a hastily arranged military intervention in Myanmar, both for the Burmese people, for whom such an intervention could just as easily exacerbate the crisis as bring relief, and for the promise of the R2P concept, which actually outlines out a set of diplomatic and humanitarian options that are intended to avert a military showdown and preserve national sovereignty. For R2P to really grow in importance in a positive way, military intervention must be a last resort.

Since military intervention is not the only way to use R2P, though, invoking it in an accurate and responsible manner could actually perform a significant service to the doctrine. Merely by uttering these three words, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner spurred a discussion of R2P that will hopefully help hasten its integration into commonly accepted — and enforced — international norms.This leads to my other point — that discussing the concept in the context of a natural disaster may prove more palatable to the sensibilities of the international community than invoking it with reference to a man-made catastrophe. This is not to say that China or other abusive regimes — cherishing the inviolability of their own sovereignty — will be at all keener on setting any sort precedent for R2P, but simply to note that the reflexive response to the devastation wrecked by a cyclone is, because the situation is not inherently political, more unconditionally sympathetic than the response to the more complicated, human-generated suffering of armed conflict.

The debate over R2P in Burma, of course, is essentially a political one, as the issue is no longer the death and destruction caused by Nargis, but that caused by the exacerbating and obstructionist tactics of the country’s ruling junta. As Gareth Evans, the author of the report establishing R2P, wisely reminds us, intervention in the case of a natural disaster is only even possible under the aegis of R2P if a government’s calculated disregard for its citizens amounts to a crime against humanity. The doctrine was not intended as a shortcut for the international community to provide relief in desperate cases of natural disaster.

Nonetheless, as the outpouring of donations following the 2004 Asian tsunami taught us, individuals and governments alike often react more proactively to a single, catastrophic act of nature than to a messier — even if far deadlier — humanitarian morass such as that in DR Congo. Again, referencing R2P in light of the cyclone in Burma will not automatically bolster the doctrine — we must remember that R2P was officially applied to the genocide in Darfur over a year ago, and movement to operationalize the concept has been limited — but, as the sheer volume of the discussion of R2P that has percolated over the past few days suggests, the test case of Burma has generated a degree of salience for R2P that Darfur has not.

Granted, the paranoid opposition of Burma’s government, and those of allies like China, is no less real than that of Sudan’s ruling cabal and its powerful allies (once again, read: China); the junta, hidden away in the Burmese jungle, simply prefers a strategy of stifling all communication over one of combative rhetoric. Similarly, Sudan’s active obstructionism is just as transparent as that of the Burmese authorities, but — and this is just a hypothesis — the case of a government preventing cyclone relief from reaching its citizens seems to shock the world community into an even greater sense of indignation than does the slow and methodical obstruction of aid in a low-simmering, five-year “genocide by attrition.”

David Shorr at Democracy Arsenal sees the case of post-cyclone Burma not so much “as an opportunity to assert R2P, but rather as an indication of how far we still have to go.” This is true, in that there is certainly a long road ahead before R2P becomes an established component of international relations. However, the extensive attention that has been paid to this humble but audacious doctrine over the past few days could signal an opportunity, as well. Thinking about R2P in a meaningful way — not, and this is an important caveat, as a simple trigger for invasion — in the context of a devastating natural disaster could provide an important step in furthering the understanding of what sovereignty and protection mean in the broader and perhaps less “glamorous” array of cases of governments failing to fulfill their responsibilities to their citizens.