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May 09, 2008

I Want My R2P!
Posted by David Shorr

Afraid I can't go along with Mark Goldberg on the Burma situation as a test of the Responsibility to Protect. I worry that a showdown over the principle of national sovereignty could undercut, rather than promote, the process by which R2P takes hold as an international norm. Which raises the question of how that process will work and where it stands. [I owe thanks to Stanley Foundation colleagues Keith Porter and (occasional DA guest) Michael Schiffer for forcing me to think about this.]

Actually, I look at this not as an opportunity to assert R2P, but rather as an indication of how far we still have to go. Ask yourself this: how do you rate the chances of getting into Burma via a Security Council showdown over intervening militarily without the junta's consent (Chapter VII) versus forms of pressure short of the assertion of an international responsibility to intervene? There has been a lot of important progress in chipping away at the sovereignty shield, but R2P doesn't enjoy nearly enough international support for us to simply insist that it be followed.

I think R2P will take hold gradually, rather than being proved by a single situation (or even two or three). That doesn’t mean not pushing in situations like these; the Burmese junta absolutely should not be allowed to fend off international pressure with the sovereignty shield. Indeed, in my evolutionary scheme, the weakness of the case for inviolable national sovereignty -- a very difficult position to argue in the face of dramatic human suffering -- is the sovereigntists' Achilles heel. Even so, we should refrain from any kind of decisive confrontation over a norm that patently is not yet in effect.

So if R2P proponents (I consider myself one) don't, er, force the issue, then how will it ever become stronger? I think we'll get there by accumulated precedent rather than dramatic test cases. It will be the mutual reinforcing of three trends:

  • growing presumption of the international community's natural interest in nations' internal affairs (contrasted with inviolable sovereignty)
  • increased willingness of countries to put military assets (and political will) on the line
  • greater difficulty for offending states to put up resistance.

    I'd argue that multiple instances can manifest these trends without any decisive showdown, and that they could build to a point when R2P is a much stronger norm than it is today.


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    I've been thinking about R2P in Burma's context since junta's crackdown several months ago. Their intransigence since the cyclone further illustrates just how out of touch and despotic this regime is. However I have to agree with David and say that air-dropping food or sending in Marines to clear the tarmac isn't where we're at right now. Even Kouchner is backing away from his earlier efforts to force a UN resolution on Burma (see my earlier comment to Ilan's post).

    What the government is engaging now is surely despicable, but as far as I can tell it's more of desire to maintain control rather than a systematic practice that would qualify as a crime against humanity. (NOTE: the UN and human rights groups have condemned the Burmese junta for committing crimes against humanity including forced displacement, systematic rape, recruitment of child soldiers, and extrajudicial killings).

    Still the question remains as to whether aid can be divorced from politics as the government continues to limit who is given access to the ravaged areas.

    Of course we shouldn't be risking out soldier's lives in Burma.

    The "Responsibility to Protect" has been a dead letter from the beginning. This will not change.

    Burma is actually a fairly good test of this idea's status, as was Darfur before it. A humanitarian disaster arising in a very short period of time within the borders of a country the government of which opposes mitigation of the disaster: what is the response from outside that country?

    The response, in a word, is talk. Nations that are genuinely concerned about human suffering on this scale are too limited in the resources they can bring to bear against it, even if they were willing to pay a price to deploy the resources they do have. Nations with resources -- with respect to Burma in particular, I have in mine the Burmese government's patrons in Beijing -- are not that interested in alleviating human suffering. It has always rather astonished me that anyone would expect the leaders of China's government, who came of age during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to lose any sleep over periodic suffering by people far away, who are not even Chinese.

    There was a period during the 1980s and '90s when the international community -- mainly the democracies of Europe, North America and the Pacific Basin with the occasional participation of a few other countries -- saw something like a "responsibility to protect" as a responsibility it could practicably discharge, as in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. In retrospect it is clear that this view depended entirely on the availability of the American military to intimidate and if need be to suppress uncooperative local governments and militias; in the former Yugoslavia it may also have depended on contending parties that had exhausted themselves over many years of war before being ready to accept a peace settlement.

    Be that as it may, the commitment in Iraq has taken the American military out of the picture for the forseeable future. We ought therefore dispense with theory about the world community's duty to defend victims of their own government's malfeasance. Duty it may be, but there is no practicable way of discharging it. The "responsibility to protect" is not about to become an international norm, by any means. It is so much talk, and nothing more.

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    Still the question remains as to whether aid can be divorced from politics as the government continues to limit who is given access to the ravaged areas.

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