The crisis in Burma caused by cyclone Nargis appears to be worsening. Despite reports yesterday that the Burmese junta will allow limited aid provided it is channelled through ASEAN countries, the aid agencies have released reports predicting widespread famine and death. Save the Children believes that ‘thousands of children will starve to death within weeks unless food supplies reach them soon’ and The UN believes that ‘up to 2.5 million could be at risk of death and disease.’
What to do?
The libertarian position has already been made clear by Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul. This week when a Congressional resolution came up for a vote merely offering ‘condolences and sympathy‘ to the people of Burma, Ron Paul was the only member of the entire House of Reps to vote ‘no’. Lew Rockwell is against any form of help for the Burmese believing it to be a good excuse for the US to take over another country.
Norm Geras points to an alternative reason for the ‘do nothing’ school as presented by author David Rieff in the LA Times. He makes the very valid point that aid agencies are in the business of aid and hence always exaggerate the suffering caused by disasters. But he also makes the absurd point that calls for aid from the French and British are tantamount to a renewed colonialism.
But is ‘do nothing’ the correct and only course of action?
The Economist favours air drops but the Guardian says these don’t work. Our very own ex-foreign Minister and now head of the international Crisis Group, Gareth Evans, has no time for pussy-footing around and has suggested that the UN might need to bring aid to Burma ‘non-consensually‘.
More than a few very powerful people (UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner) are raising the issue of whether the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia (which guaranteed the right of a sovereign nation to non-interference from other nations) is now null and void and whether the recent UN resolution of a ‘responsibility to protect‘ (or R2P) should be invoked. This resolution, passed in 2005 with little fanfare, forces the UN to act if a sovereign nation is committing crimes against humanity.
The debacle in Iraq has made people forget that sometimes coordinated interventions can lead to productive outcomes – for example Kosovo and Kuwait. But one thing is clear – unlike say, lower taxes, freer trade or less regulation, the issues around foreign aid and intervention are complex and unintended consequences lie in wait around every corner. It is simply not possible to know the right answers.
Perhaps the best solution is the threat but not the act of intervention. Perhaps this is why the junta have finally relented.
If you would like to do something, John Quiggin is raising money at his blog.