For the last month, the world has been disturbed by reports that Burmese leader General Than Shwe and his military junta are resisting relief efforts for the millions affected by Cyclone Nargis. Their apparent indifference to the plight of their people is the latest example of the cruelties inflicted when State sovereignty trumps human security.
The debate over how the global community should respond to the cyclone has been polarised. Many in the West are saying to hell with sovereignty – these are crimes against humanity. But for Burma’s ruling military junta, sovereignty is supreme – what happens within their borders is their business. The emergency meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers last week blurred the debate, raising the question: to what extent and in what areas are States willing to give up some elements of their sovereignty?
On a recent visit to Jakarta, many of the intellectuals, policymakers and government officials I spoke to believed that a natural disaster such as Nargis can provide the conditions necessary to promote broader constructive relationships among nations. In particular, many argued that the creation of a regional peace service that would respond to natural disasters is a crucial first step to ultimately develop a means of reacting to gross human rights violations. This standing service would resemble the proposed United Nations Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS), which is gaining increasing international support.
UNEPS would be a permanent standing capacity ready to respond to an emergency within 48 hours of authorisation. Such a service would be staffed by an equal balance of men and women representing different cultures and religions, with a strong focus on human rights. It would recruit doctors, nurses, multi-faith chaplains, social workers skilled in mental health, agronomists and engineers, plumbers and bricklayers. The Burmese case suggests that such a peace service would best take a regional form.
Soon after Nargis hit Burma, we saw the conditions which hindered access to the cyclone’s victims. The Burmese regime’s hostile reception of Sir John Holmes, the UN head of humanitarian affairs, reveals the importance of how offers of aid are presented.
Holmes, and the countries he represents, seemed to be perceived by the junta as white faces with neocolonial agendas. By contrast, Burma’s decision to accept foreign aid through the ASEAN task force reveals the benefits of assistance given by "familiar faces". And it was only after Than Shwe met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, that he agreed to allow in all aid workers regardless of nationality.
For all their differences, South East Asian countries share important historical and cultural features. Most are former colonies. All possess State-centric policies that exist alongside a desire to strengthen the ASEAN bloc. As Such, member States are sensitive to the cultural and political dynamics of others in the Association. As one member of ASEAN pointed out, the Association does not impose the will of the majority of member States, it tries to convince the renegade State to change its ways. This makes ASEAN a more attractive intervener than States like France and the US, whose approach is perceived by countries like Burma as condescending and "preachy".
The slow steps by which the Burmese authorities are relaxing their position on non-intervention underline the potential of regional (as opposed to global) humanitarian interventions.
Interventions that respond to natural disasters are an area in which emphasis on sovereignty appears to wane – "It’s about human beings against nature" as one prominent Indonesian journalist puts it – making such interventions an important gateway to broader international cooperation. While Burma claims that intervention in the name of disaster relief is political, it is certainly less contentious than interventions that seek to respond to more obvious manmade atrocities.
While ASEAN has been called a talk shop, its success in persuading the Burmese junta to allow a foreign relief effort demonstrate that regional arrangements can achieve what the West cannot always: access to a paranoid and oppressive regime that is failing to protect its citizens. The case of Burma also reveals that developing a regional mechanism that responds to natural disasters may, in the long run, pave the way for the creation of a regional emergency peace service with an accepted mandate to prevent mass human rights abuses.