To Intervene or not to Intervene

The cyclone that struck Burma in May caused terrible devastation, killing many thousands, destroying roads, house, bridges and leaving many in immediate danger of sickness and death. The Disasters Emergency Committee (, an umbrella organization of overseas aid agencies, has reported that, “On 2 May 2008 at 16.00 local time, Cyclone Nargis ripped across the coast of Myanmar (also known as Burma), bringing misery and devastation to tens of thousands of people.” The Committee make appeals only in cases of serious emergency on a vast scale. The cyclone victims in Burma are (at the time of writing) in desperate need of emergency aid. No single country can manage such a disaster. The international community has responded immediately. However the Burmese government is dragging its heals. The military dictatorship which controls the country does not want foreigners pouring in. They control a closed society and are not prepared to open up, even if doing so will save a significant portion of the civilian population.

So the ethical question for the international community is: At what stage should direct action be taken to try to save the civilian population? Aid agencies confirm that they must work with the agreement of the government and must try all in their power to persuade them to let the help in, but can there come a point when the international community must act?

Writing at this time, the pressure is building. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called what the Burmese government are doing as inhuman action. So when does inhuman action become a crime against humanity? Typically a crime against humanity is a large scale attack or persecution of a people, undermining human dignity. It is an action driven by a government policy.

UN Security Council Resolution 1674 which was adopted by the UN Security Councilon 28th April 2006, “reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (for links go to Currently the Burmese government are not actively persecuting, but by their active prevention of aid on a suitably large scale, they are certainly indirectly causing the death of civilians on a large scale. First the children, elderly and sick will die. Then the others.

According to the BBC ( France’s UN Envoy, Jean-Maurice Ripert warned that the military’s refusal to allow aid to be delivered “could lead to a true crime against humanity”. Given that the aid is ready and on the borders, if the government was not present the aid would arrive. The only thing stopping the aid is the Burmese military dictatorship. So it could be argued they are directly causing a man made humanitarian crisis.

If the Burmese government do not change their mind then aid drops could take place but the effectiveness will be limited. Should a more direct response be considered? Using just war theory the process for such action can be considered. The action itself could involve ignoring the wishes of the government to stay out. Under normal circumstances a country’s borders are respected.

Firstly a just authority would need to approve such a direct decision. In this case it is the international community in the shape of the UN to decide to act against a member state, through the Security Council, and the role of the International Criminal Court to punish perpetrators of crimes against humanity. These are the competent authorities. It must be the international community’s decision.

The cause must be just. There must be a real and certain danger, and there is to the civilian population in the affected region. There must be a just intention. However much countries may not like the Burmese Dictatorship, it is the danger to civilians that must motivate action.

The action taken by the community must be proportionate. It should be focussed on the alleviation of suffering of the people in the affected area and can only be done if it could not lead to worse things taking place. There must not be any excessive violence, death and damage should be avoided. This is more difficult to judge, especially if the Burmese government activity tried to prevent aid drops or a military action to force aid in.

All possible alternatives must be exhausted first and this is perhaps why, presently, diplomatic efforts are being pursued. There must be a reasonable chance of success. This is difficult to measure, air drops are not that effective but might be better than nothing. A militarily backed intervention could be much more difficult and might lead to worse instability for the whole country.

There is an ethical case for direct military backed emergency aid. But agreement at a diplomatic level is much more likely to succeed quickly, if the agreement can be reached. If not then the ethical thinker is stuck in an unenviable place. Stand by and watch a human caused horror unfolding, or intervene and risk harm.

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