Imagine the face of a Burmese mother crammed into an emergency relief tent with the remnants of her surviving family. Imagine the confused expressions of her four frightened, starved and disease-flagged children, when the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, crouches down at the opening to their tent and offers his patronising words of wisdom: Â“The United Nations is here to help you. The whole world is trying to help MyanmarÂ”.
The images from Ban Ki-MoonÂ’s brief visit to Kyondah relief camp in Burma are UN propaganda. They are fuelled by Ban Ki-moonÂ’s hollow words of support for the 2.4 million people who have been affected by Cyclone Nargis. The mother in that tent and the millions of others who have yet to find shelter, clean water or rescue can be excused a sigh of desperation. What have the UN done to help? What is the world doing? Why are they not doing more?
Since the cyclone struck 22 days ago the Burmese junta have acted with the utmost contempt for the lives of the people they govern. As of the 17th May they have only allowed three foreign aid workers into the Irrawaddy delta, the area where most of the estimated 134,000 victims died. The UN estimate that 1.8 million people have yet to receive any aid. Malaria, life-threatening diarrhoea and dysentery will be writing the death warrants for thousands more in the following weeks whilst the flooding of the rice fields and the destruction of 60% of the deltaÂ’s infrastructure mean that the death knell is going to be continually sounded for months or even years.
It is therefore laudable that our world citizenÂ’s protection body, the Â‘United NationsÂ’, state that protection is its Â‘most important obligationÂ’. The Protective Action report created by the Humanitarian Policy Group defined protection as Â‘seeking to assure the safety of civilians from acute harmÂ’. In 1992 the then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali published Agenda for Peace affirming the right of the UN to interfere with a state in order protect the human rights of its citizens. In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) established the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) which bestowed responsibility on the international community to protect a population suffering serious harm. At the UN summit in 2005 109 governments endorsed the use of force to achieve protection in certain circumstances.
Yet, instead of honouring their bold words by instigating protective action the UN and the international community are not standing by their honourable promises. By any humane standards, the Burmese people need immediate protection, and they should be protected by force if the junta will not allow aid to enter. Ban Ki-moonÂ’s 4 hour helicopter visit of Myanmar is a pitiful symbol that the United Nations, ergo the world, is happy to display a choir-boy conscience, whilst they can fly away and leave the people it was designed to protect rotting face down in the mud they have for graves. The Â‘United NationsÂ’ is succeeding in isolating one of the most isolated nations.
Whilst Gordon Brown claims that the actions of the Junta are Â‘inhumanÂ’ and Ki-moon declares that Â‘our focus now is on saving livesÂ’ the people of Burma hear nothing, receive nothing, and live as Â‘nothingsÂ’. We have heard that our aid agencies are Â‘prepared to enterÂ’; we have heard that Ki-moon has tried phoning Than Shwe, the countryÂ’s senior general and has received no reply. There are four American Naval ships, situated near the delta region, ready to supply massive quantities of relief and support to those most in need but Burmese officials will not allow this foreign aid to enter. The ships cannot stay there forever and will leave, according to a Pentagon Spokesperson, Â‘Â‘in days or weeks, not monthsÂ’. Of course mediation is providing slow responses but whilst we are mediating people are dying. We need aid to enter and it needs to enter now.
General Thein Sein, the Burmese Prime Minister, ludicrously exclaimed in the juntaÂ’s mouthpiece, New Light of Myanmar that Â“we have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage.Â” Yes, the country needs rebuilding but not before childrenÂ’s bodies stop washing up on the sides of rivers and definitely not before the 1.8 million in need of help receives it.
It is farcical for the UN and the world to stand by any longer. The longer they exchange meaningless civil words, then the longer we all endorse the murders of thousands. Earlier this year Ki-moon visited Rwanda, 14 years after the genocide, and he declared that Â“the United Nations has a moral duty to act on the lessons of RwandaÂ”. Well it is failing. We all have a moral duty to act now.
Unfortunately, Burma is not Iraq or Afghanistan. This is not a quest for oil. This is not a demonstration of military power. It is not a Western tragedy. This is Asia and this is human decency. The longer the UN and the 109 countries which agreed to protect international civilians play on their diplomatic puppet strings and achieve nothing, then the longer thousands die in our name. Perhaps using military power to help the people in desperate need in Myanmar will do nothing but whilst we do the alternative we are achieving nothing, and allowing a country which uses rape as punishment, gives guns to children and violently suppresses any freedom of speech to continue its acts of murder. Do you want that on your conscience?
Â“The United Nations is here to help you. The whole world is trying to help MyanmarÂ”. Seems a bit hollow now does not it?