Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect

I find the debate about the utility and effectiveness of the United Nations Security Council is never more ignorantly foaming-at-the-mouth than when Myanmar is on the docket. Take today, for example. For starters, Bernard Kouchner, echoing the kind of wildly starry-eyed sentiment about the UN and its role in the world that is usually reserved for a Save Darfur street team, called for the UN to force the junta to accept food aid in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone. ("By God, we will MAKE THEM EAT!!!!") While OCHA director John Holmes calmly observed that being confrontational with the government would not help starving people on the ground get food any faster -- or at all, necessarily -- French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert threw a righteous tirade at the Security Council after the Chinese and South Africans pointed out that a country's incompetent response to an internal natural disaster is not a threat to international peace and security and therefore not within the purview of the Security Council's mandate. (Amusingly the Ambassador credited Kouchner, his FM, with "inventing responsibility to protect 20 years ago." Rather like how Al Gore invented the internet.)

The problem is simple. Generally, among Western democratic powers, the left calls for greater use of the UN Security Council to authorize coercive action against problem states, while the right calls the UN useless and wants to ignore it altogether. Both critiques miss the point: when it comes to the internal affairs of sovereign nations, the Council is blocked. It cannot, and will not, act in any meaningful way on such issues ever again, not so long as China is an ascendant power and Russia maintains its veto as well.

The oversimplified Council dynamics are this: because they don't trust the General Assembly or the UN's human rights machinery, the Western powers attempt to refer every issue to the Security Council, whether it falls under the purview of the Council's mandate or not. In the post-Iraq world, however, the Russians, Chinese, and every developed country that is economically strong enough to not be bought off by the US (at the moment, that would be South Africa and Indonesia) have basically decided that the only time the Council should be engaged is if a) there is an active peacekeeping mission on the ground that all sides in a conflict are supportive of, or b) one country has directly attacked another, which, thanks largely to the Security Council's existence and George H.W. Bush's judicious use thereof in 1991, doesn't really happen anymore. In other words, the Council has no jurisdiction, mandate, or cause to intervene in the internal affairs of the Zimbabwes, Myanmars and North Koreas of the world, UNLESS they do something that DIRECTLY AFFECTS international peace and security (such as the North's nuclear detonation in 2006). I hate to say it, but looking at the Council's original function and described mandate, I think the Russians and Chinese are right. And even if they weren't, Iraq gives them the excuse to never budge on this issue again. If Myanmar doesn't accept food aid, tough. If North Korea executes political prisoners' family members in public, tough. If Zimbabwe withholds food from opposition supporters, tough. If Sudan doesn't want a peacekeeping force, tough.

The left thus faces a tough choice: either support unilateral or "coalition of the willing" action, as the militant humanitarian hawks of the latter Clinton years pretty much all did during the Iraq War (see: Holbrooke, the Clintons, the New Republic, Biden, Kerry, Blair, et al), or decide that the era of regime change is dead, that Kosovo was a fortunate anomaly, and that henceforth, unilateral action against states that are not aggressors beyond their own borders -- regardless of their detestable human rights record at home -- is to be regarded as simultaneously destabilizing to the world order, morally repugnant, and against the national interest, and thus, opposed. Applying this conundrum to a pressing international issue, Darfur, we can say that the left should either demand a NATO intervention to back up UNAMID, which is doomed to fail otherwise (largely because, as the Chinese have repeatedly observed, there is no peace to keep), or scrap UNAMID and move to purely bilateral, non-military-or-coercive diplomacy in dealing with Sudan's various schisms as Andrew Natsios recommends, fully mindful that if another bout of genocide breaks out, there's nothing to be done about it.

Where do I stand? Let's put it this way: if anyone wishes to hold a grand pompous funeral for Responsibility to Protect in the plaza outside the UN Secretariat building, I will deliver the eulogy.

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