A military ruled Burma and the Canadian coined concept of the Responsibility to Protect
November 23, 2006-Winnipeg: As a witness to 21st century global challenges facing us — from terrorism to the proliferation of nuclear warheads, pandemic diseases, ethnic cleansing and massive human rights abuses in different countries like Sudan and Burma and etc. — it is crystal clear that civilized world leaders must come together to collectively find a lasting solution to make a better world for human kind to live with dignity.
Apparently, a part of the problem handicapping a caring world leader from performing their responsibility effectively through the United Nations is that a country is inflicted with its own internal problems. Burma, Russia, and China always defend this notion of State sovereignty and the so-called non-interventionist principle in member’s internal affairs. A classic example is Burma. In Burma, China is running the show, controlling our whole economy, and greatly benefiting from it. Because of its own self-interests, the Chinese government with effrontery is blatantly ignoring the massive human rights abuses and the killings of ardent pro-democracy activists, sexual violence against women etc. committed by the Burmese junta against Burmese citizens.
Under the current Burmese military Junta, Burma now is the second largest opium producing country, and one of the worst violators of basic human rights. Worse, its internal problems include: the destruction of villages, forcing thousands of refugees into neighbouring countries, escalating problems of forced labour, dramatic rising numbers of unchecked HIV/AIDS, torturing and blatant denials of religious freedom against Christians, trading illegal drugs, conscriptions of Child soldiers, systematic rape of women by the frontline soldiers, arbitrarily imprisoning of political dissents including a Noble peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the 1999 John Humphrey Freedom Award laureate Min Ko Naing.
Recently, on 15 September 2006, 10 out of 15 UN Security Council members voted yes to discuss Burma’s issues formally at the table acknowledging that Burma indeed is a real threat to international peace, a veto-wielding China and Russia again voted NO, repeatedly defending their mantra of State sovereignty and argued not to interfere with Burma’s internal affairs. The point here is, this deeply flawed UN system, which allowed dictatorial regime like Burma, and its supporters to continuously commit genocide or human rights abuses needed to be addressed and challenged by a civilized world leaders and a concerned global citizens before it is too late.
One thing to keep in mind is that those eras of the first and second world wars, when colonized countries struggled for their own independence and how sovereignty was the main concerns for those struggling states, are long gone. World leaders really need to redefine this so-called “sovereign rights” in line with this rapid changing political landscape of our globalized world, where no country can isolate itself from others. We are in the new era of inter-dependence across the continents more so than ever before. Unlike WWI and WW II, most killings of innocent civilians and large-scale loss of lives occur in the intra- State conflicts (ie. conflicts within one country like Rwandan genocide in 1994, or the massacre of over 6000 pro-democratic forces in 1988 in Burma under the Burmese totalitarian regime) and not inter-state conflicts.
The Responsibility to Protect
After thinking about global challenges today, I find so fitting and relevant the central arguments put forward by this notion of the responsibility to protect against the state’s sovereign rights. The responsibility to protect is not about rights but rather the duties every state has in terms of protecting their citizens from harm. While expounding on the idea of the responsibility to protect, in his book of Navigating a new world, Lloyd Axworthy, former Foreign Minister of Canada and current president of the University of Winnipeg, eloquently puts, ” The sovereignty is not a prerogative but a responsibility.” In fact, it advances the idea that the sovereignty of any state is based on its responsibility of whether or not it can protect its own citizens from harm.
What it argues is that if the state could provide security to its citizens and protect them from harm, the state has a full right of the sovereign power. If not however, the state loses its sovereignty rights. In other words, if the state fails to dutifully protect its own citizens or where the state itself is the perpetrators of the massive human rights violations, the international community has a right to intervene in order to protect populace from serious harms. Most important, it also says that a collective military action could be authorized to protect victims within a sovereign state as a last resort. In this case, it suggests that the veto should not be used by the P-5 unless their vital interests are at stake.
Though no theory or concept is above criticism including this responsibility to protect, I believe the responsibility to protect is a pragmatic concept that the international community should embrace as a guiding principle in their response to conflicts in troubled regions where massive human rights and crime against humanity take place. This concept also points out that a country like Sudan or Burma, where the state authority itself is the perpetrators of the human rights abuses no longer has the sovereign rights, meaning that the international community can intervene to stop the killings and cease the human rights abuses.
If the United Nations embraces the responsibility to protect when dealing with global conflicts, I believe we can proactively prevent genocides like Rwanda from happening in future. Most importantly, if the R2P is adopted, it would not only constrain the veto power of a country like China, Russia from misusing their veto power, but it would also make clear to countries like Burma that they can no longer hide behind the walls of sovereignty.
Za Ceu Lian, is a third-year political science student at the University of Winnipeg, and is a General Secretary of Burmese Community Organization of Manitoba (BCOM), and a newly elected president of the Chin Student Union of North America (CSUNA), ethnic Chin from Burma. Email [email protected] or [email protected]