Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Burma's Humanitarian Disaster

The developing humanitarian disaster in Burma/Myanmar has its direct cause in natural catastrophe but the cause has now shifted to the Myanmar government's response. Food, water, and healthcare assistance exists, but the government refuses to allow outsiders to distribute the aid and provide for people who are at serious risk of disease and death, especially in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta, now facing the monsoon season and possibly another cyclone. The junta's intransigence has risen to the level of genocidal intransigence. The junta's paranoia amounts to deliberate starvation of Burma's people. Thus, it's time for the rest of the world to consider intervention. Bernard Kouchner, the Foreign Minister of France, has called for direct assistance to the people of Burma with or without Myanmar government approval.

Peter Singer, three decades ago, made a very simple argument (which he has since revised and updated). He asked whether you agree with two basic assumptions. The first assumption is that suffering and death from lack of food, water, and decent healthcare is bad. Agreed? The second is that if it is in our power to alleviate this suffering and death without giving up something of comparable moral significance, then we ought to do it. Still agreed? The question is what is of comparable moral significance. This can be a feasibility issue as much as a matter of balancing moral considerations. At an individual level, it may mean, for example, not spending away your children's future in order to feed someone who's starving now. Or putting your own well-being at risk by giving too much. But it also challenges us to consider where the line of comparable moral significance exists. Is giving up your truffle oil morally significant? Your Play Station? The greater convenience in driving to work rather than taking public transportation? That extra $100 you add to your mutual funds account per year?

Humanitarian intervention rests on the moral assumption that we are obligated to help when we can do so. But the notion of comparable moral significance is important here as well. The question is now not one of money. The international "community" is wealthy enough to feed everyone on the planet, if there were truly the political will. The question here is also not feasibility or efficiency. Yes, there's a huge amount of waste in the world of humanitarian organizations and certainly in the world of the large poverty-solving agencies where very few are willing to give up their six figure incomes in exchange for more resources for attacking poverty.

The big questions for humanitarian intervention are moral and political. The classic obstacles to intervention are the sovereign autonomy of states, the self-determination of peoples, and consensual legitimacy. Intervention of any sort must also be a last resort policy. These "obstacles" exist in the international system for good reason. Intervention has a long history on the side of imperialism and colonialism, often conducted in the name of ostensibly helping an oppressed people. Interventions, even when based on purely humanitarian reasons, can lead to further harms and such harms are notoriously difficult to foresee or predict. A long tradition of writing on intervention - since at least Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill - details the ways in which intervention can function at cross-purposes with even well-intentioned humanitarian intervention. Kant and Mill presented powerful moral and political arguments against intervention. An interventionist step is never to be taken lightly.

What about the current Myanmar/Burma case? If it is indeed true that the junta's inaction amounts to willful harm of its own people, soon to rise to the level of genocidal harm, at what point is intervention justified? Does it matter if the junta does not intend genocide, but is calculating a tradeoff between saving its people and resistance to any outside intervention? What are the costs? On the other hand, would a non-interventionist approach that led to the deaths of tens of thousands more Burmese make the international community morally culpable?

Here's one, not terribly reflective response.

Robert Farley
has a much better assessment, although he assumes an intervention would necessarily take the form of a military invasion. I'm not so sure of this.

And (via Andrew Sullivan) here's the similar case of food politics in Zimbabwe.

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