Burma; The Right To Protect

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.

27 thoughts on “Burma; The Right To Protect

  1. i did Greego. and i couldn’t honestly believe that anyone could be so pathetically pedantic. it’s not as if Congress was voting to take any action, but merely to say ‘we’re thinking of you, guys.’

  2. Pommy, we want Congress to stay asleep!
    It’s a lot like the ‘Sorry Day’ business. As soon as you say it, the apologizees start talking about compensation, and trial cases, and taking things to the Yoo-en! That is what is in my mind, anyway.

  3. nicholas

    i agree that it’s a pointless motion and should not have been proposed. but once it had been put forward, it comes back to Tim’s point about taking libertarianism to a wider audience.

  4. What’s the point of threatening invasion if you’re never going to do it?

    The true alternative to humanitarian crisis is individual charity. When we have a humanitarian crisis individuals and groups should help voluntarily. This method is MUCH more effective (exhibit A: Katrina) than government intervention. In addition, this allows people to be free, and does not involve the forcible confiscation of people’s money.

    Although less often practiced, the same is true when armed defense may be required for a people group. Those who feel a moral obligation to help should organize, arm themselves, and go protect those people. Such a solution carries fewer of the negative implications and moral hazard that a military invasion does, and does not involve the forcible sacrifice of military lives, as well as the monetary cost.

  5. Oh, and you guys should go and actually read that resolution to which you refer. It has a number of statements condemning the Burmese government, and demanding a particular course of action from them. This is definitely meddling in the internal affairs of other nations, and is none of our government’s business. It’s not like we don’t have enough problems of our own for them to usefully spend their time on anyway.

  6. Paul

    without doubt individual charity is far superior to any kind of organised govt action. however, what to do when a country refuses individual charity and is prepared to watch its people die?

    do you have a link to the Congress resolution. it has been widely reported as very benign.

  7. The libertarian position has already been made clear by Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul.

    Wrong. One particular libertarian position was made clear. Neither Rockwell nor Paul are the last word.

    Libertarianism is about individual freedom, not national sovereignty. If a community suffers devastation, nobody questions sending help from within the country. But put them a metre over the national boundary and there’s all this stuff about non-intervention. WTF?

    I know the arguments about government aid and misuse of taxes, but Burma won’t even allow in aid that’s been donated by individuals.

    Several countries including France and the US are ready to send aid via the military. I reckon they should just do it. The Burmese military is too busy terrorising Buddhist monks to resist. Buzz them with a couple of jets and they’d wet their pants.

    Alternatively, if that stupid bloody International Criminal Court had any value it would be threatening the Burmese leaders with a trip to the Hague. That might focus their minds a bit.

  8. Pommy — you seem to have a deep hatred of any libertarian that doesn’t agree with you about invading foreign countries. That’s an unfortunate trait.

    DavidL — pommy was intentionally trying to paint Paul & Rockwell as evil because… well… because… because they are the “wrong sort” (read: anti-war) of libertarian.

  9. oh for god’s sake, temujin, stop sniping from whatever country you’re in now. i’m not saying anything of the sort. get a grip and stop behaving like a spoilt brat.

  10. I’ll second that Pommy. David is correct however about the libertarian position, neither of them represent any sort of mainstream libertarian position.

    Temujin; Tell me truly, do you seriously believe that the US is seriously just using the natural disaster as an excuse to invade, rather than just wanting to help?

    Do you take seriously the left wing dropkick bull about a US empire?

  11. Paul’s position is clear and defendable – he’s made an oath to uphold the constitution and he does so (even if every other member of congress doesn’t.) I don’t see how you could dispute this point Pommy when you’ve read the entire resolution. And ignoring your ad hominem attacks, pedantry is exactly what we want from politicians *especially* at the federal level. It’s bending the rules that fucks things up in the first place. Do you believe that politicians should be allowed to disregard the restrictions put in place by the constitution in an emergency? Or are you claiming that this resolution was actually constitutional?

  12. Look guys Rockwell and them are brilliant theoreticians on what ultimate liberty looks like. We ought not go to these guys for wisdom when it comes to the interim scenario. Mises.org is probably the best website in the whole world. But we have to understand these peoples limitations and work around them. And not ignore their strong points.

  13. It’s not suprising that you’d now start personally abusing me. After all… I’m opposed to foreign intervention too. I will respond in kind in the hope that you will not like it, and therefore see the error in your ways. Feel free to return to polite discussion at any time, and I will follow suit.

    It is your odd little rants that are turning threads into personal abuse aimed at good libertarian thinkers. Instead of discussing any of a thousand areas of agreement, you instead offer snide personal attacks against anti-interventionist libertarians. Instead of simply commenting on the Burma issue, you use it as another chance to dig the boot into “wacko” Paul & Rockwell. Interestingly, you are starting to sound like John Quiggin in his witch-hunts against global warming “delusionalists”. Speaking of John Quiggin — perhaps you might like to criticise a social democrat or socialist for a change?

    Not that it’s relevant to anything, but I’m in Jordan at the moment. That doesn’t mean I should let you continue your childish crusade against anti-interventionist libertarians.

    And to respond to the other irrelevant part of your rant, I have never been spoilt (grew up poor) and there is nothing in my comments that suggests otherwise. Indeed, the only reason I can see for you making such a comment is that you’re trying to be a cunt. You succeeded.

    Jim — I don’t think the US is trying to invade Burma. If you asked Rockwell or Paul (or 99.9% of libertarians) they would say the same thing. Why are you so determined to hate these people who have done so much good for the libertarian movement?

  14. Most government intervention is done because they want to help. If wanting to help was the only measure then big government would be the way to go.

    I agree that helping people on this side of the border and not helping people on the other side of the border is somewhat arbitrary (kind of like feeding your own kids and not the neighbours kids). When I am charitable with my money I almost always give to foreign causes because their case is almost always more worthy. However I generally think our government is busy enough messing up our lives and does not need a mandate to run around the universe helping every other civilization. There are an unlimited number of problems out there and an unlimited number of opportunities for our government to get involved. If you want big government then get the government to take all these problems onboard. If you think it should take on less than all of them then you’re in favour of borders even if they’re not nice clear crisp well recognised borders drawn on a map. Limited government means government that operates within boundaries. Defining those boundaries will always be somewhat arbitrary however I have trouble with the idea that any libertarian would reject the need for such boundaries. Limited government means government with boundaries. And if you don’t defend those boundaries when there is pragmatic pressure to reject them then what is it you really believe in when you advocate limited government?

  15. Terje – well put. the only exception i would make is if there is an easy quick fix that has few consequences (for example, it costs little for Western govts to lean heavily on Theo Mbeki to in turn lean on Mugabe). however, such a solution rarely exists.

    i do disagree, however, with Mark’s statement that ‘all govt aid is corrupt’. inefficient, yes, incompetent, yes. but often the motivation is simply a desire to help. this isn’t corruption.

  16. I said “Government aid is corrupt”, not “all Governemnt aid is corupt”. I can tell the difference, why can’t you?

    I am right. Government corruption is endemic in aid trasnfers. A small level of trasnparency and good conduct is entirely irrelevant to the point.

    Do you want to give material support (with good intentions) to a Government you are simeltaneously urging be deposed of for human rights abuses?

    That said, invasion seems to be the only solution to the problem as it is framed by Pommy. Like I said before, it is unfeasible.

    (Aid drops won’t work apparently but I don’t see the harm. The Burmese are unlikely to shoot anyone down.)

    1. Thailand are too poor. Lean on them and…?

    2. The US is heavily indebted and is fighting two wars it cannot afford to lose. What happens if it is more difficult than perceived?

    Military planners suggest an occupation force of 1 combatant occupier to 50 natives. Who is going to do this?

    One solution would simply be to foreign military escorts to aid and aid agencies.

    Anyhow I get the feeling this is what Miliband etc really want.

  17. Do you want to give material support (with good intentions) to a Government you are simeltaneously urging be deposed of for human rights abuses?

    that is without doubt the best argument against aid.

    corruption is often associated with the distribution of aid (as it is with anything govts touch), but it is not in of itself a corrupt act.

    Mark – i’m not for one moment suggesting invasion. that would be a catastrophic outcome. in this case, quiet diplomacy of getting ASEAN nations to apply pressure to the Burmese generals seems to be the only solution.

  18. “Perhaps the best solution is the threat but not the act of intervention. Perhaps this is why the junta have finally relented.”

    If that’s true I don’t see the point of much of your article, the aid can flow in and the rest of your post is more about invading countries on the basis that they violate human rights.

    Please draw up a list of these, prioritise them and tell us how far down the list we would get without suffering a loss of living standards.

  19. Pommy,

    What can you offer ASEAN? (What can you offer that crazy Mbeki?)

    As you don’t want to invade, I take back 16 and I’m no longer confused, just curious.

    I’m really seeing two (old fashioned) solutions to these regimes.

    1. A right to invoke old military operating rules like granting letters of marque and reprisal, along with targeted assassination to enforce anti-terrorism and the right to protect. Repeated outcomes would lead to deterrence. At worst, it is target practice at some unsavoury characters.

    2. We should repeal anti mercernary laws. What is wrong if a career soldier takes a huge fee to depose of Mugabe and invite in a multinational and native pro democracy transitionary Government (this being part of the “product” that the solider offers expatriates, Mugabe haters worldwide and anti Governemnt forces).

  20. leaning on the apartheid regime of S Africa worked and China’s welcoming of foreign aid during its earthquake disaster is definitely down to worldwide condemnation of the way it handled the Tibetan uprising. moral suasion can work.

    i dont see much wrong with targeted assassinations.

  21. I don’t see much wrong with trials in absentia if done correctly.

    I don’t see much wrong with multilateralism (and the Korean War was a proud example of how the UN should work)except that the mechanism for it is broken.

    Quite frankly I like Mc Cain’s idea about a new league of liberal democracies. After all, at least it is moral suasion.

  22. If we’re talking about assassinations, what are the criteria? Can we go for anyone who wants high office (i.e. more power)? Who’ll take Rudd, and how much would a Prime Meddler cost anyhow?

  23. Graeme

    But we have to understand these peoples limitations and work around them. And not ignore their strong points.


  24. Mark – I’d settle for a league of democracies. A league of “liberal” democracies would be unlikely to have many members.

  25. McCain is stealing one of my ideas! Jim might back me up on this- I proposed a ‘United Democracies’ about a year ago, with an automatic free-trade zone between allied democracies. Keep talking, fellow libbers- we’re reaching more people than we knew!

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