Burma (Myanmar) dodges a bullet

The big lesson: Threats to force aid into the delta may have pushed the junta to relent.

The outside world finally made its point, perhaps at the barrel of a gun. Burma's leader has agreed to let in foreign aid workers – mainly Asian – to help save 2 million people left vulnerable after the May 3 cyclone. But did Gen. Than Shwe partly relent under rising threats of an "aid invasion"?

The answer, if it can ever be known, will be critical to a difficult question only recently put before the global community: Should a country be invaded if its government does not protect its people from massive harm?

That idea, known as "responsibility to protect," was endorsed by the United Nations in 2005, a decade after it failed to prevent the Rwanda genocide. The notion is that no country, in this increasingly borderless world, is an island, entire of itself.

This month, the doctrine, which in theory would allow breaking once-inviolate national sovereignty to prevent large-scale tragedy, was cited by France in a call for armed intervention in Burma. At least 78,000 people perished during the cyclone, but many more now face a perilous future without direct foreign aid – which Burma's reclusive and cruel junta had opposed for nearly three weeks.

It helped France's case that the US Navy stood ready off Burma's coast to launch aid into the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta, and that the Navy had assisted Indonesia's recovery after its 2004 tsunami.

But China, along with other nondemocratic nations, blocked France's efforts at the UN, just as it impeded serious intervention in Darfur. (Authoritarian leaders find sovereignty a useful shield to protect their own ruthless rule.) China then may have advised its allies in Burma (also called Myanmar) to avoid a coercive intervention and to accept foreign help.

It is possible, then, that the mere existence of this UN doctrine could have achieved limited success in bringing relief to the destitute in Burma's ravaged delta.

But that hardly clears up doubts and dilemmas that hang over this new and largely unrefined idea in global governance.

How, for instance, would a French or US force have delivered aid while also fighting Burma's 428,000-man military? Would France or any European nation really risk lives for such a cause – as the US did in 1992 for Somalia's famine? During the 1990s, Europe had to be pushed by the US to use military might to save Bosnia and Kosovo from Serbia's atrocities.

And if Burma, then why not Zimbabwe, with its political violence and hunger? Or North Korea, which faces a famine?

Defining the scale of an atrocity that justifies an invasion, and then the effective means to achieve it, has not yet been done by the UN. Without that, uneven use of the doctrine would erode its chances of being used for the most egregious atrocities. Then the very apathy that it is meant to end may only rise. Dictators would see a green light to commit inhumane acts.

At root, "responsibility to protect" is an assertion of individual rights over states' rights. A state is legitimate only if it protects its citizens and, failing that, it faces the possibility of its citizens asking for protection from others.

Burma came close to that point. Because of this doctrine, the world, however feebly, has staked a new claim for human rights.

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