As hundreds of thousands remain homeless and hungry, and millions teeter on the verge of disease and infection, there is now a growing call here in the West to intervene militarily in Burma, against the wishes of the ruling generals, and deliver aid parcels to the suffering Burmese at the point of a gun.
I have never been a fan of 'Humanitarian intervention', especially since it was used by dictators like Hitler to justify the conquest of the Sudetenland – and by our own Tony Blair to justify the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. I also find the idea of using military force – bombs, bullets, etc – to feed the victims of a natural disaster rather distasteful, not to mention counter-productive. Is being stuck in the middle of a shooting war between well-intentioned US marines and nationalistic Burmese soldiers really what the suffering victims of Nargis need right now?
It is of course the easy, popular and macho option to advocate military action in Burma, and it does makes it look like you ‘care’ – that’s why the foreign ministers of Britain and France have been at the forefront of such hawkish calls. I, however, was pleased to see the former poster-boy for ‘humanitarian interventionism’, David Rieff, cogently articulate the argument against such ill-thought-out aggression in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend:
“At first glance, the arguments…may seem like common-sense humanism. How could it be morally acceptable to subordinate the rights of people in need to the prerogatives of national sovereignty? In a globalized world in which people, goods and money all move increasingly freely, why should a national border -- that relic of the increasingly unimportant state system -- stand in the way of people dedicated to doing good for their fellow human beings? Why should the world stand by and allow an abusive government to continue to be derelict in its duties toward its own people?
“Surely, to oppose this sort of humanitarian entitlement is a failure of empathy and perhaps even an act of moral cowardice.
“This has been the master narrative of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. It has dominated the speeches of officials and most of the media coverage, which has been imbued with an almost pornographic catastrophism in which aid agencies and journalists seem to be trying to outdo each other in the apocalyptic quality of their predictions. First, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Yangon, Myanmar's capital, without having left the city, told reporters that though only 22,000 people had been confirmed dead, she thought the toll could rise as high as 100,000. A few days later, Oxfam was out with its estimate of 1.5 million people being at risk from water-borne diseases -- without ever explaining how it arrived at such an extraordinarily alarming estimate.
“In reality, no one yet knows what the death toll from the cyclone is, let alone how resilient the survivors will be. One thing is known, however, and that is that in crisis after crisis, from the refugee emergency in eastern Zaire after the Rwandan genocide, through the Kosovo crisis, to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the 2004 South Asian tsunami, many of the leading aid agencies, Oxfam prominent among them, have predicted far more casualties than there would later turn out to have been.
“In part, this is because relief work is, in a sense, a business, and humanitarian charities are competing with every other sort of philanthropic cause for the charitable dollar and euro, and thus have to exaggerate to be noticed. It is also because coping with disasters for a living simply makes the worst-case scenario always seem the most credible one, and, honorably enough, relief workers feel they must always be prepared for the worst.
“But whatever the motivations, it is really no longer possible to take the relief community's apocalyptic claims seriously. It has wrongly cried wolf too many times.
“We should be skeptical of the aid agencies' claims that, without their intervention, an earthquake or cyclone will be followed by an additional disaster of equal scope because of disease and hunger. The fact is that populations in disaster zones tend to be much more resilient than foreign aid groups often make them out to be. And though the claim that only they can prevent a second catastrophe is unprovable, it serves the agencies' institutional interests -- such interventions are, after all, the reason they exist in the first place.
“Unwelcome as the thought may be, reasonable-sounding suggestions made in the name of global solidarity and humanitarian compassion can sometimes be nothing of the sort. Aid is one thing. But aid at the point of a gun is taking the humanitarian enterprise to a place it should never go. And the fact that the calls for humanitarian war were ringing out within days of Cyclone Nargis is emblematic of how the interventionist impulse, no matter how well-intended, is extremely dangerous.
“The ease with which the rhetoric of rescue slips into the rhetoric of war is why invoking R2P should never be accepted simply as an effort to inject some humanity into an inhumane situation (the possibility of getting the facts wrong is another reason; that too has happened in the past). Yes, the impulse of the interveners may be entirely based on humanitarian and human rights concerns. But lest we forget, the motivations of 19th century European colonialism were also presented by supporters as being grounded in humanitarian concern. And this was not just hypocrisy. We must not be so politically correct as to deny the humanitarian dimension of imperialism. But we must also not be so historically deaf, dumb and blind as to convince ourselves that it was its principal dimension.
“Lastly, it is critically important to pay attention to just who is talking about military intervention on humanitarian grounds. Well, among others, it's the foreign ministers of the two great 19th century colonial empires. And where exactly do they want to intervene -- sorry, where do they want to live up to their responsibility to protect? Mostly in the very countries they used to rule.
“When a British or French minister proposes a U.N. resolution calling for a military intervention to make sure aid is properly delivered in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, then, and only then, can we be sure we have put the specter of imperialism dressed up as humanitarianism behind us. In the meantime, buyer beware.”
Rieff identifies the central flaw in the principle of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ – it only applies in a one-way direction, from North to South, from West to East. To have any real merit, the likes of France and Britain need to accept that India and China et al have a reciprocal right to intervene in our backyard, next time one of us faces a hurricane or similar natural disaster. (In fact, the United States rejected humanitarian aid from the likes of Cuba and Venezuala in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005). It’s not a step the governments of the West are likely to take any time soon.