Dear Madeleine Albright

Regarding the precedents of international intervention that were set in the 1990s

You write that despite the precedents set in the 1990s, “the concept of humanitarian intervention has lost momentum”, mainly due to the US invasion of Iraq.

Likewise, the title of your op-ed, “The end of intervention” suggests that the 90s were a sort of golden age for humanitarian intervention.

We might even have taken you seriously if you had so much as mentioned one word—Rwanda—in all of the 782 words that make up your essay. Since you don’t, as that sage advised, your “advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

So who’s going to run relief operations over the junta’s heads?

America, Europe and a coalition of the willing

It should be abundantly clear by now to any thinking person that Burma’s generals are not about to open up their country to foreign relief workers, even if they somehow agree to accept foreign relief supplies. It should also be abundantly clear that in doing so, the generals would be responsible for making the humanitarian disaster worse, the recovery longer, and the human cost higher. It should also be abundantly clear that the generals don’t care.

So all those who are trying to negotiate with the junta can only be hoping that Burma and Cyclone Nargis will be buried under the rubble of disasters elsewhere, the Sichuan earthquake, the Jaipur bombing (at least for India) and the latest twist in the US presidential election campaign.

Countries like India–that have some leverage with Burma—are quietly delivering relief goods; more than a week after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, it is possible to discern that India’s strategy is a calibrated, low-key approach, that balances the objective of keeping communication channels (with the junta)open while delivering humanitarian relief goods.

What about countries—like the United States and Europe—that don’t quite have working relationships with the Burmese regime? Well, Anne Applebaum has it right—a “coalition of the willing” is exactly what the situation needs. Only the United States has the capacity to make a meaningful difference to the relief effort. It would be justified in going into Burma on a humanitarian mission, without sanction from the Burmese regime or the UN Security Council. India should support such an initiative, but is likely to take a neutral position. It is extremely unlikely, though, that the US will act. Not because of regard for international law, not because of what happened over Iraq but because it might not see it as important enough to US interests. [Update: Robert Kaplan invokes the pottery barn rule]

It is interesting to see the European Union call for forceful international intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. Given that Europe has no military assets of its own in the region that it can deploy at short notice, it is hard to avoid the impression that it sees its own responsibility to protect as largely moral. So, ironically, the Europeans have to convince the Americans that, well, a “coalition of the willing” is necessary.

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System

Remembering the East Pakistan Genocide

Truth and reconciliation elude the victims of the 1971 mass murders

Thirty eight years ago this day, the Pakistani army’s tanks moved in to Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, as part of the General Yahya Khan-led junta’s plan to bring the autonomy-seeking province to heel. “We have to sort them out” said Colonel Naim of the Pakistani army’s 9th division, “to restore the land to the people, and the people to their Faith”. Operation Searchlight officially got underway on March 25th 1971, although in his memoirs, Major General Sujan Singh Uban writes that the Pakistani army had begun repressive measures a few days earlier.

Thus began the genocide.

It was perhaps among the few in recent decades that did not come as a surprise, not least to the victims. It accompanied the birth of a new nation leaving horrible birthmarks that disfigure Bangladeshi society to this day. Bangladesh in 1971 was the site of multiple conflicts: a civil war between the the two wings of Pakistan, communal violence between Bengalis and non-Bengalis, a genocide, an guerrilla war, a conventional war and a counter-genocide. In each of these conflicts perpetrators, victims and onlookers often exchanged roles. Here is my essay (PDF, 200kb) that examines the causes, course and results of one sub-conflict—the genocide against Bengalis by the West Pakistani army—and attempts to explain it through a Realist perspective.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power indicts the realist underpinnings of US foreign policy for its indirect complicity or reluctance to intervene in several 20th century genocides—including those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

While that may indeed be the case, the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. (The essay contains a small section disagreeing with Sarmila Bose’s recent revisionist study that concludes that the term genocide was a product of exaggeration.).

Download the essay here

From the archives: Archer Kent Blood, RIP; Who claimed Bangladeshi independence?; Indira called Nixon a…?; Bangladesh celebrates victory day; Children of a failed theory; Foreign Policy Naifs (Barbara Crossette edition)

A burg of spiel

Darfur, according to China

This week’s issue of Beijing Review, China’s ‘national English weekly’, has an article on how China is playing a positive role in Sudan’s Darfur region. Headlined ‘Relief and recovery’, the article tells us that China is delivering “real economic and social benefits to the people of Darfur”. This, the article explains, is done through a Chinese-initiated dual-track approach that gives “equal importance to the peacekeeping operation and the political process in Darfur”. But here’s how it frames the issue:

Darfur is an arid, underdeveloped region in western Sudan. Fighting flared up there in February 2003 after rebels took up arms against the Sudanese Government, accusing it of marginalizing the region. A humanitarian crisis has since emerged. Western countries, particularly the Unites States, have ratcheted up pressure and imposed sanctions on Khartoum because of the Darfur issue. [Beijing Review]

The humanitarian crisis, it turns out, simply emerged when rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government. According to the Beijing Review neither the activities of the armed government-backed janjaweed militia nor those of the Sudanese armed forces have anything to do with the humanitarian crisis.

The article also quotes Wang Hongyi, an African affairs expert at the China Institute of International Studies, is quoted as saying “Over the past years, the Darfur issue has developed from conflicts between tribes to a hot-spot political issue. As a result, it is unlikely to be resolved in a few years’ time, though armed conflicts have greatly diminished in the region.”

He’s right. The conflict is unlikely to be resolved quickly. But not because it’s become a “hot” political issue. Because even after so much heat, China doesn’t even acknowledge the real issue.

India delivers food aid to North Korea

Winning friends and influencing people in Pyongyang

North Korea’s official news agency reports that India has delivered the first shipment of an unspecified amount of food aid to that country.

Indian Ambassador to Pyongyang Zile Singh and North Korean officials were present in a presentation ceremony at Nampho Port, it said. [Yahoo/Xinhua]

Who says foreign policy can’t be hopeful?