For many days now, British, French and American ships loaded with relief supplies have been sitting off Myanmar ’s coast, waiting for permission to enter that country’s ports. The aid is urgently needed. Almost a month after Cyclone Nargis left at least 134,000 people dead or missing in Myanmar, the United Nations  estimated that almost 60 percent of the two million people affected by the catastrophe had yet to receive assistance. The primary culprit for the delay is Myanmar’s intransigent military, which appears to be more concerned with preserving control over the population than with saving the lives of their fellow countrymen. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at last extracted a promise from Myanmar’s government on May 23 to allow more humanitarian aid into the country, yet relief agencies and Western nations are skeptical that the junta will follow through with all the necessary visas and bureaucratic assistance.
France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, a former head of Doctors Without Borders , has said that the U.N. Security Council  may need to invoke the “responsibility to protect” as a justification for an armed intervention that will force delivery of humanitarian aid. Mr. Kouchner is correct in his assessment that Myanmar presents an important test case for the world’s commitment to the duty to protect, the principle that the international community has a right to intervene when a government either fails to protect its people or has itself violated their rights.
In his recent address to the United Nations, Pope Benedict XVI argued that in such situations the international community has a moral obligation to intervene. “Every State has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made,” the pope said. When “states are unable to guarantee such protection,” the international community should intervene, and such interventions “should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty. On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage,” the pope asserted.
The catastrophe in Myanmar appears to be a clear-cut example of a case in which the failures of a government unable or unwilling to protect its own population require action by the international community. The international community must first exhaust every possible nonmilitary option for a resolution of the crisis. The mediation of other Southeast Asian nations as well as of U.N. Secretary General Ban seems to offer an avenue for humanitarian rescue not available through direct negotiation with the West, which would still be the major source of aid. While slow, such mediation may satisfy the principle of proportionality. Although the human toll may still be high, it will be smaller than if there is resort to armed intervention. Yet with the monsoon season rapidly approaching, time is not on the side of the suffering people of Myanmar. If a limited armed intervention is needed, it should be a multilateral effort, and its principal purpose must be humanitarian. The scale, duration and intensity of the intervention must be no greater than what is required for the successful delivery and distribution of aid.
It is clear that the most appropriate body to authorize any such interventions is the United Nations, which makes all the more urgent the pope’s call to strengthen the U.N. system. Adequate funding of the organization, coupled with appropriate accountability, would be a good start. But the duty to protect requires the international community to rethink the very idea of security and to understand that preventing and alleviating humanitarian crises, primarily through nonmilitary means, is an absolute requirement for international peace in the 21st century. Effective future interventions, therefore, will require a reformed U.N. Security Council committed to incorporating duty to protect principles into its decision-making, as well as a standing international constabulary force that can effectively implement its resolutions and augment the organization’s beleaguered peacekeeping capacities.
Most important, the world’s moral commitment to fulfill its responsibility to protect will need to be strengthened. The international community’s embrace of this principle will require nation states to expend their treasure and even their blood on behalf of the world’s oppressed, and to confront the possibility that the moral imperative to act in the face of human suffering may override their provincial interests. As failed states multiply and complex humanitarian emergencies become more frequent, only more difficult choices lie ahead.