The earthquake was measured at around 7.8 on the Richter scale and struck on a hot summer night, burying hundreds of thousands beneath tons of rubble. Despite offers of aid from all over the world, the Chinese authorities stubbornly refused all outside help, insisting there were adequate relief supplies and medical resources in the area to cope. There were not. Estimates of the death toll from the great Tangshan disaster of July 1976 are still controversial; many believe that the official Chinese figure of 250,000 may have masked up to half a million casualties.
The contrast with the devastating earthquake that hit Sichuan province recently is instructive. Within a day of the tragedy, specialist teams from Taiwan were on their way to the devastated region; they were quickly joined by disaster relief teams from Japan, Russia, Singapore, and South Korea, with other nations contributing at the express invitation of the Chinese government. There are a number of reasons for the much lower (though still horrendous) death toll, but there is no doubt that China’s decision to welcome outside help will have contributed greatly to the prospects for those injured or buried alive in the rubble of Sichuan’s towns and cities.
No such luck for the Burmese victims of Cyclone Nargis. Since May 2, when the deadly storm struck, foreign aid has been restricted to a trickle by the government in Rangoon. At the time of writing, all supplies must, officially at least, be landed in the capital and handed to the government, or distributed through official channels; the prospect of foreign charities ferrying fresh water to the affected areas is obviously anathema to the generals who run the country. As for the British, French, and U.S. naval vessels anchored in international waters off the Irrawaddy Delta — well, forget it. As for the UN Secretary-General, well, he couldn’t even get the Burmese leader to answer the phone.
There have been hints in the last couple of days that the restrictions may be relaxed in the face of overwhelming international pressure; but whatever has happened by the time you may read this, it is clear that the secretive junta that runs Burma would, quite literally, rather see tens of thousands of their people starve than be saved by foreign intervention. With every day that goes by, they are getting their wish.
The phrase “crime against humanity” is one of the most overused in contemporary political discourse, applied to everything from the Israeli “security fence” to the growing use of crops for biofuels. It should not be forgotten that the term actually has a legal meaning. The International Criminal Court defined “crimes against humanity”, in its Rome Statute ten years ago, to include, alongside acts such as murder, enslavement, and torture, “Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” Despite being a sin of omission rather than commission, it is hard to see the deliberate withholding of life-saving food, water, shelter, and medical supplies from helpless civilians as anything less.
Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, was the first to argue after the disaster that the United Nations’ “responsibility to protect” principle, unanimously endorsed by the General Assembly in 2005, should be invoked in support of a “coercive intervention” if the regime refused to cooperate; others, like Britain’s Gordon Brown, have referred carefully to the generals’ “inhuman treatment” of their people. And indeed, for armchair interventionists like myself, every day that goes by seems to make the case more compelling; why don’t we just go in and deliver aid to the sick and the starving, and screw what their thuggish leaders think?
Sadly, it’s not quite that easy. Airdropping supplies into a flooded region without the consent of the junta presents formidable logistical problems and would, in any case, likely be ineffective, particularly where medical supplies are concerned. Much of the aid thus delivered would probably be lost, or just snapped up by the Burmese military anyway. And, worse, what if a plane carrying supplies was shot down? A disaster zone would become a battlefield. Furthermore, violating Burmese sovereignty might be counterproductive in the longer term, with the risk that what flow of aid is currently getting in might be shut off by a restive military. No, going in without permission from the Burmese government, as frustrating as it may be, is not an option that should be taken lightly.
The deeper problem is the one that this crisis poses to the very idea of “liberal interventionism,” a principle whose star has fallen a long way since its apogee in Kosovo a decade ago. Post-Iraq, the prospect of the West violating a nation’s sovereignty to alleviate man-made humanitarian disasters may not be a moral or legal dead letter, but there is far less appetite for it than there was. As for any concerted military action to overthrow a brutal regime that has brought untold suffering on its people, that is simply not on anyone’s radar in the current climate, in Burma any more than Zimbabwe or Darfur. It would be a brave president indeed that ordered U.S. troops back into the swamps of southeast Asia.
Alternatives, though, are running out; phone calls, press conferences, and international condemnation can only do so much. Dropping supplies out the back of a Hercules from 10,000 feet is a poor substitute for action, but it may be all that is realistically on the table. “Realism” will likely win the day, and the victims of Cyclone Nargis will go the way of the Darfuris, the Rwandans, and all the others.
“Non-intervention,” as Christopher Hitchens once put it, “does not mean that nothing happens. It means that something else happens.” As we sit back and watch a catastrophe exacerbated by the willful neglect of a callous regime, we should not allow ourselves even the consolation of knowing that none of this is our fault.