Cyclone Nargis: Protect human lives – no ifs, no buts

Two weeks after Asean foreign ministers met in Singapore in an attempt to persuade the Myanmar government to allow greater access to humanitarian aid workers to the Irrawaddy delta in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, there has been backtracking by the Myanmar government. There are continuing reports of obstruction by officials.

In the Straits Times/AFP story, (A month after cyclone… 2.4m have no food, shelter still, ST 4 June 2008) it was reported that:

Aid agencies say 2.4million people are in need of food, medicine and shelter, and many live in tents or along the roadside.

The United Nations estimates that about 60per cent of them still have no foreign aid, and despite some easing of restrictions, the junta is under fire for its continued hampering of the flow of supplies to the worst-hit delta region.

And that

World Food Programme spokesman Paul Risley said its first helicopter to arrive in Yangon on May22 made its first trip to the delta only on Monday.

‘This is inhumane,’ said Mr Thin, a Myanmar volunteer providing aid to the stricken.

‘The Irrawaddy has for generations been the lifeblood of this country and villages there have provided us with food. Why are the survivors now being made to suffer?’

Meanwhile, Asean has deployed its Emergency Rapid Assessment Team to assess Myanmar’s aid needs.

It will present an initial report in about three weeks but will not complete its work until mid-July, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said yesterday.

The last point is also inexplicable. How can an Emergency Rapid Assessment Team take 3 weeks to do an assessment?

In the same edition of the Straits Times, Poland’s ambassador to Singapore contributed an opinion-editorial:

* * *

Source: Straits Times
4 June 2008

Protect human lives – no ifs, no buts

By Boguslaw Marcin Majewski, For The Straits Times

THE human sufferings following the deadly cyclone in Myanmar raised, yet again, the question of whether the international community should act when human rights in any country are threatened. Unfortunately, we have not worked out a mechanism which could provide a straightforward answer to this question.

The chief reason is that international law still concerns relations between states and not within them. But this is changing. States are beginning to recognise that they do hold legal powers for dealing with human rights violations beyond their sovereignty.

Relinquishing the concept of non-interference in the internal affairs of another state is no longer taboo now. Since the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights, the world has evolved and with it the interpretation of what constitutes a state.

Traditionally, a state is comprised of three elements: a defined area, a defined population and an effective system of power. The first two are usually easy to define; not so the third. What happens if ‘the power’ is unable to effectively control developments within its territory – as we are witnessing today in Myanmar?

Poland went through similar experiences. Twenty-seven years ago, the Polish ‘state’ crushed a non-violent movement ‘in the name of state stability’. As in the case of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar today, the Polish state imprisoned its symbol of freedom, the Noble Peace Prize recipient Lech Walesa. What followed was the end of the Cold War.

Since then the world has gone through a crash course on how to respond to gross violations of human rights – in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur. The international community has become aware of the need to supplement its tools for dealing with such crimes – thus the creation of the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over gross human rights violations in the territory of any state.

Totalitarian regimes still function in many places in the world. Strengthening their own power is their only end. Their societies are only a means to realise their own ambitions. Myanmar’s military junta is obviously such a regime.

Although the junta has agreed recently to accept international aid, it emphasises ‘rebuilding’ rather than ‘rescue’. Why? Because the window of opportunity when rescue could have made a life- and-death difference was wasted. The Council of Europe has indicated that the junta’s response to the tragedy should be considered a crime against humanity.

Since 2005 the international community has committed itself to the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ or R2P – which stipulates the right to intervene when the ‘national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’.

Many would argue that R2P should also apply in cases where a government refuses international humanitarian aid and creates a situation where tens of thousands of its citizens may die. Human life and dignity are of the same value irrespective of the country or the continent where fundamental standards of human rights are violated.

When aid is finally delivered to those in Myanmar who are in dire need, the international community will have to reflect on those for whom the aid came too late. The democratic world has an obligation to make sure that in future those who bear a responsibility to protect should act without hesitation – and if they fail to do so, they should be brought to justice.

The writer is Poland’s ambassador to Singapore.

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