Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What can the world do about Burma?

The situation in Burma falls within the spirit, but not the letter, of the UN policy of Responsibility to Protect (R2P): the regime in Burma is clearly in breach of its responsibility to protect the victims of the cyclone. Regimes that fail in their responsibility are now liable to have their sovereignty overridden. But there is a possibility that collective force could cause more harm than good to the population of Burma.Iraq teaches us that this is almost inevitable.

The question then is, "What can we do in situations like Burma, where there is a need for regime change, in the absence of action under Chapter VII of the Charter of the UN?"

For the present situation, the Security Council will do whatever it decides to do, which given the presence of China, will almost certainly stop short of regime change, which is what the Burmese so desperately need.

How, though, could the international community bring about regime change in a non-violent way? What mechanisms need to be put in place to achieve this ind of thing in the future?

The following measure are offered, not as a prescription, but to stimulate a discussion on the possibilities.

Here are some proposals:

The overriding purpose of policy should be to persuade the regime to leave voluntarily and as soon as possible, with as much as possible of the country’s infrastructure left intact. To achieve this, threat and incentive must be used simultaneously. The UN must send a clear message: “Leave now and you can retire in comfort; the longer you stay, the more likely it is that you will face trial and imprisonment”.

Governments that are considered by the Security Council and the UNGA (and perhaps the ICJ) to be failing in their responsibility to protect their population, may be formally declared by the UN to be illegitimate.

There should then follow a set of sanctions designed to target the regime, but to spare the people from hardship.

Sanctions are always controversial. The corporations will always try to dodge them, since, as things now stand, their concern is profitability, not human rights. There is also a stream of humanitarian concern about the effects of sanctions on the people, the victims of the regime. Sanctions should therefore be targeted against the people who run the regime, including Government officials.

First is the denial of air travel to the regime and its officials, except on diplomatic missions to discuss the handover of power. This measure is credited with being a component of the readmission of Colonel Gaddafi the world of political acceptability.

Asset freezes on Government members overseas accounts is a good instrument, since the promise can be made that if the government leaves office voluntarily and soon, they can have access to (a reasonable part of) their accounts again. Although it offends our sense of justice that they should be able to keep profits stolen from the people, it is a reasonable price to pay them to go. Compared to the financial and human cost of an invasion, allowing dictators to have their money is an nsignificant expense.
Loans for state-run enterprises could be blocked.

The main obstacle to this policy would be the aversion of bankers to any interference whatsoever from the State. This state of affairs may change with time.

Within the UN, one of the first sanctions to be applied to any leader who falls below a set standard in human rights practice would be the loss of the right to take a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission would be the first.

Tightened border controls, in readiness for sanctions on arms related materials, would demonstrate the hardening will of the international community.

An array of economic sanctions could be deployed that do not impinge on the lives of the common people:

· ban on imports of all lethal goods

· ban on imports of dual purpose technology

· ban on imports of chemical weapon precursors

· ban on imports of biotechnology

· ban on imports of nuclear technology

· ban on imports of wines, spirits, tobacco, cars and luxury items, since they are often used by oppressive regimes to buy loyalty.

Assistance will be given to democratic opposition groups who support principles of good governance.

If the regime still refuses to improve or give way, these opposition parties could be entrusted and empowered with responsibility for imports of, and fair distribution of, necessities like food and medicines. This would give them practice in the arts of co-operation (with each other) and administration, enabling them to prepare for government.

If necessary, the distribution efforts will be protected by UN forces. This wold lead to a gradual loss of control by the regime of a widening area of their state territory, which would finally, and regrettably but necessarily, lamount to Chapter VII action. This action would however be defensive (defending the aid effort) and would be at the regime's choosing (they could choose not to attack the aid effort)

These proposals are offered not as final solutions, but as tentative feelers in seeking the way to remove abusive dictators without resorting to military violence except as the very last resort. Their effect is to create a continuum between non-violent action and Chapter VII action, a continuum that at every point leaves the regime with the option of leaving to enjoy a comfortable retirement in exile. At the same time, it empowers the opposition, and gives them training in administration and co-operation.

I am uncomfortable with the last option, of military action to defend the aid effort, but it seems preferable to simply declaring all-out war on the regime in question.

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