For nearly two weeks, we have witnessed the callous indifference of Myanmar's ruling junta to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The regime's grotesque failure to permit more than a trickle of aid has stimulated calls for the United Nations to compel Myanmar to provide access for international relief efforts.
Whether such calls are answered could determine the survival of hundreds of thousands in Myanmar spared from the initial inundation but clinging to life without food, clean water, shelter and access to lifesaving medicines. It will also speak volumes about how we conceive of state sovereignty in the 20th century.
At the 2005 World Summit in New York, the 192 U.N. member states unanimously approved a new international doctrine known as "the responsibility to protect," often abbreviated as R2P. It establishes a norm of contingent sovereignty. When a government violates its fundamental obligations, either by committing mass atrocities against its people or allowing them to be committed, the international community may intervene to save lives.
The motivation behind R2P was to prevent future Rwandas, Srebenicas and Kosovos, where armed factions abetted by murderous regimes slaughtered thousands of unarmed citizens. Implementing the doctrine has proved more challenging than enunciating it, as the ongoing conflict in Darfur attests.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner invoked the R2P principle for Myanmar. He called for a U.N. Security Council resolution to force the junta to accept humanitarian aid. Predictably, China and Russia quashed the proposal. U.N. officials themselves fear losing what little access in Myanmar they enjoy, and even the United States and United Kingdom remain lukewarm.
Despite this resistance, Mr. Kouchner's cause is not hopeless. But those of us who champion it will need to answer critical questions about the legal, political and practical feasibility of their argument.
First, does the doctrine apply to the Myanmar situation? The main critique of Mr. Kouchner's proposal is that U.N. member states endorsed the R2P for a narrow range of contingencies, specifically "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." Any effort to broaden the doctrine would surely stimulate violent opposition among developing countries, congenitally worried about outside intervention. This could undermine the fragile consensus on R2P's application to genocide.
And yet the longer the junta obstructs the flow of lifesaving aid, the clearer it becomes that the regime is willing to inflict unconscionable suffering to retain its grip on power. By transforming a natural disaster into a man-made one, and condemning tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, to death, the junta can reasonably be charged with "crimes against humanity."
Second, is there any diplomatic possibility for a Security Council resolution invoking R2P? Prospects may be less dire than conventional wisdom suggests, provided that the groundwork is laid behind the scenes with China, Myanmar's long-standing protector. With the approach of the Olympics, Beijing wants to be seen as a responsible international stakeholder, rather than one indifferent to human suffering. It might be persuaded to bring pressure on Myanmar of the sort it has occasionally exerted on another paranoid and secretive dictatorship, North Korea. (China can also point to its own recent disaster, the Chengdu earthquake, as the right way to respond to catastrophe.) With China's acquiescence to a Security Council resolution, Moscow would likely fall in line.
Regardless of Chinese and Russian obstructionism, the United States, Britain and France should submit a U.N. resolution insisting on immediate humanitarian access. This would force Beijing and Moscow to go on the record about their indifference to human dignity. And it would leave the U.S. and allies with the option of acting outside the council but in the spirit of the U.N. Charter, as NATO did in halting Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Finally, would invoking R2P make any tangible difference in bringing lifesaving aid to desperate victims in Myanmar - or would it merely prove a feel-good gesture? Ideally, a U.N. resolution (and Chinese prodding) would persuade the junta to change course, improving access for the delivery of relief aid under U.N. coordination.
Things would get more complicated if the junta were to actively resist outside intervention, raising the risk of violent armed confrontation. But time is running short, and the international community must be prepared to call the regime's bluff. In all likelihood, the junta would flinch in the face of a united Security Council - particularly given the government's total lack of public support.
The Myanmar crisis - like the conflict in Darfur - shows the limits that sovereignty places on international action to prevent large-scale loss of human life at the hands of irresponsible governments. Three years ago, U.N. member states joined to recognize that sovereignty provides no license for inexcusable behavior. The time has come to act on that conviction.
Stewart Patrick is senior fellow and director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.