Rudd 'quiet diplomacy' could help stem Burmese cyclone crisis


Cyclone survivors In 2005, the UN General Assembly and Security Council agreed that each State has the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. With this responsibility comes the idea that sovereignty can, in some circumstances, be breached when a State fails in its duty.

It is now more than 12 days since Cyclone Nargis struck Burma's delta region with devastating force, causing many thousands of deaths — a number that is set to spiral due to subsequential disease, starvation and exposure. Yet the Burmese Government continues to conduct business as usual, making no effort to speed up visas for foreign aid agencies desperate to get relief teams, supplies and infrastructure into disaster zones.

Given the UN doctrine regarding 'responsibility to protect', should concerned nations intervene in Burma in order to stem the humanitarian crisis?

China, Burma's great power ally and protector, and a permanent UNSC member, wouldn't countenance invasion or military threat. Nor would ASEAN, though it is Chinese power that counts here. This leaves persuasive diplomacy.

But the Burmese junta will not be persuaded by governments, like ours, which it knows would be pleased to see it fall. Because Australia has an embassy in Burma, we will make representations (as other embassies will) to get the aid moving. These will be met with indifference, because the junta knows we are not its friends.

Effective pressure may be exerted through a willing China, the one country whose views it heeds. So the issue becomes how to influence China.

There are two ways to do this. First, through quiet bilateral diplomacy by countries such as Australia, which have good relations with China. Here is Mr Rudd's opportunity. If he succeeds, we won't necessarily know about it. Quiet diplomacy works best when its successes are not trumpeted. I pray this is being done, for the Burmese people's sake.

Secondly, through the UNSC. Cyclone Nargis, an internal Burmese civil disaster, has nothing to do with international peace and security. But then, nor did East Timor.

Timor was the template. Since Timor, the UN Security Council can take interest in a major human rights crisis within a country that is being badly managed by its government. If the Burmese government is causing mass deaths through gross neglect of its duty to protect its people, the UNSC can legitimately take an interest.

How might this be done? On the Timor model, the UNSC could meet now to request an urgent report from the Secretary-General on the crisis, on what UN and other relief agencies are doing, and on what problems they are encountering in delivering aid.

The UNSC could then agree to send an urgent fact-finding mission to Burma, headed by a senior UN ambassador, to report directly back to the UNSC on what the problems are and what needs to be done.

The UNSC could then pass a resolution, by vote or consensus, condemning the Burmese Government's failure to
protect its people. We are talking about a few days of active crisis diplomacy here; not weeks.

This is a strategy of ratcheting-up of world disapproval. Long before the sanction of a UNSC resolution, a UNSC mission to Burma would of itself be a strong rebuke to the Burmese government. For it would not be needed, if the latter had been doing its job in letting relief aid flow unhindered to the people.

Such a process would necessarily involve China's willing cooperation. China as a permanent member with right of veto could unplug the process at any time it chose.

The advantage of this Security Council route is threefold: it takes the form of growing public pressure on the junta, it respects China's importance, and it engages China publicly.

The formal moves by the Council would as always be preceded and accompanied by vigorous unreported bilateral diplomacy in New York, to and among the 15 UNSC members.

Here is Australia's second opportunity for quiet diplomacy. Parallel with our bilateral representations to China, we should seek to engage the UNSC, on the lines suggested above. This is what the UNSC can do, under the
'responsibility to protect' doctrine. It is Australia's duty as an active UN member to press for it.

By working correctly through the UN Security Council system, in ways that respect China's dignity and power as a permanent veto-wielding member, Australia would not antagonise China.

Australia is not a Security Council member but as a member country of the UN, concerned for humanitarian reasons, can seek urgent consultations with the Secretary-General and the 15 UNSC members, to advance such policy proposals.

China is the most important interlocutor at this point. But it is important that others like the US and France be asked to contribute to a real solution.

These two strategies — both working mainly through China, one bilaterally and the other in the UNSC context — are the ones most likely to help the suffering Burmese people. Let us hope Mr Rudd and DFAT pursue them vigorously.

General Assembly — Responsibility to Protect (excerpt from outcome document)
'A key role for Australia in Burma's democratisation' (Eureka Street)

Scott StephensTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department. He was Australia's ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and Cambodia (1994-97).


Flickr image by TZA



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Existing comments

Excellent article, will send email to PM this afternoon on behalf of my social justice group urging two pronged approach.
Cara Minns | 14 May 2008

I'm puzzled about the reference to East Timor having 'nothing to do with international peace and security'. Let's count the ways it does: 24 year long illegal invasion and occupation by one country of the territory of another. Defiance of Security Council resolutions. Numerous crimes against humanity. Disruption and attack on a UN mission during the 1999 vote and its aftermath.
John | 15 May 2008

John's puzzlement is ex post facto. Until Indonesia's acceptance of September 1999's vote for independence, East Timor under international law was regarded by the UN as part of the sovereign state of Indonesia, even though many people did not accept that view. The important precedent here is that despite this fact, the Security Council took an increasing interest in human rights violations in East Timor, even though there was at the time no dispute between sovereign states involved.

In the same way there is no dispute between Burma and any other sovereign state: yet (see my previous ES article on Burma) the UN Security Council has already taken an interest in misgovernance in Burma. This is an important step forward in UN Security Council practice. It needs to be built on, as the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P) enters international security language. (I do not dispute John's examples from Timor.)
tony kevin | 15 May 2008


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