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Does Burma Need The Humanitarian Intervention?

Does Burma Need The Humanitarian Intervention?

By Naing Ko Ko

Humanitarian intervention may undermine the sovereign states system. The debate about humanitarian intervention has dominated students of law, politics and international relations before the UN was born in 1945. Although this essay may indicate 'sovereignty as authority' (government controls over people and territory), I focus on 'sovereignty as responsibility' (government respect for a minimum standard of human rights); and argue for a new concept of "Responsibility to Protect (R2P) [1]" which reflects a ' threat to international peace and security' under chapter VI and VII of the UN Charter.

Desperate people. Burma's people plea for help.
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Firstly, let me investigate the word "sovereignty", and then I will explore humanitarian intervention, because sovereignty is an arguable theme and normative term of international relations. No one can deny that this modern world political system and the UN are constructed around states sovereignty while ignoring the legality, ethics and morality of governments of the states, and the social contract of rulers and ruled. For example, each sovereignty-state has one vote at the UNGA and not at the UNSC.

Technically, the first key point of sovereignty has a "twin-dimension": a. "legitimacy or authority" in the internal/domestic order, b. external independence/non-hegemony from outsiders/foreigners interference in the states' internal affairs. This assumption is also in line with classical realist/neorealist' anarchy systems [2]. In the other words, this sovereignty of nation-states-- the idea of final and absolute authority in the state-- has been a principal, constitutive, feature of the modern world [3]. Moreover, some scholars said that it is better to define sovereignty as authority (the right to rule over a delimited territory and the population residing within it [4]). Such definition accepts that sovereignty has both internal and external dimensions.

The second key topic of state-sovereignty is that states need "recognization" from other states as the equal value and standard at the international community. This point is very important for leaders of weak/failed states because it reduces external critics and intervention. Most of failed-states (e.g. Asean' non-interference) need to invoke the sovereignty to protect state leaders illegitimacy or to hide their lack of moral standard in the international society. Recognition, as a sovereignty-state from other states is an essential matter for every state, e.g. Taiwan, which has a double-digit-growth economy and has a strong military, however, international society/states does not recognize it as a sovereignty-state. As a result, Taiwan has not a seat in the UNGA and some international institutions. The struggles for "sovereignty" of Palestine Authority and Kurd have also highlighted the important of recognition by states or international society.

Allow me to reexamine a third key point of state "sovereignty as an authority"; a state enjoys political independence from other states. The government has supreme authority to give and enforce the law within its territory. No matter what and ways a government of state has in power, such as government like my native Burma ' military junta or Singaporean authoritarian and Brunei ' absolute-monarchy, states are juridical equal under international law. In particular, " No state or group of states has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any state [5]". Thus, each state has a monopoly over the control of the force within its boundaries, and no other actor has a right to interfere with a state's authority over its territory and people [6].

Therefore, for many centuries, this narrow interpretation of "state-sovereignty" is a norm, principle and legality among the nation-states relations with each other. Again, throughout the Cold War era, the mainstream traditional/neorealist focused on sovereignty based on "staticism", "the idea of superiority[7]", territorial boundaries of states and either national security or interest. State sovereignty for realists is absolutely God given alienable "authority and rule of rights" for the rulers of states. By contrast, for neo-liberalinstitutionalist/liberalists, sovereignty is "an instrumental value" useful under some conditions, but not a shibboleth or an alienable right. For a Marxist, a state sovereignty is a mechanism for an elite ruling class to oppress proletarian class.

Burma needs the Humanitarian Intervention

States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa. At the same time individual sovereignty�by which I mean the fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in the charter of the UN [8]. It is totally lacked in my native Burma.

While many scholars have debated the ethical and legality definitions related to humanitarian intervention. I will stay away from these global debates of academics and will state on my practical basic understandings. The humanitarian interventions by international (UNSC/NATO/ASEAN/OAU) actions are needed when states fail to protect their own citizens or make an enemy of their own people. When states practice barbarism, tyranny, anarchy, militarism, mass massacre and modern forms of slavery to their citizens, the states have not moral, legal, authority to govern their territory. The international community should not recognize, as a government of these immoral, illegitimate states, which declares war against their own people.

According to the Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, three specific dimensions of nonconsensual coercion are examined � military enforcement, sanctions and embargoes, and international criminal prosecution � before concluding with an overview of the contemporary debate on humanitarian intervention. Therefore, in line with that thinking, I do support the humanitarian intervention as two aspects: a. when state sovereignty tyranny abuses individual sovereignty, b, humanitarian intervention is humanism and

a. A state sovereignty tyranny abuses individual sovereignty

After the end of cold war, the UN played a more active role to protect humanitarian crisis. The international society and the UN had to intervene (9) countries' humanitarian crisis from 1991 to 2000[9]. The domestic order, justice system and social contract of all of these states totally failed. There were uncountable violations of human rights, including genocide, mass slaughtering, crimes against humanity, torture and forced labor cases occurred in these countries. The key factors were the collapse of the state institutions and the emergence of widespread disorder while state sponsored mass killing to civilian.

My questions are that when state sovereignty abuses individual sovereignty, should the state be respected? What makes the state, people or ruler? Confucianism, Buddhism and Islamism suggest sovereignty is for rulers only? Does international society want to accept these criminals as a government of state sovereignty? My suggestion is that international norms, value and diplomacy that are based on Government-to-Government (G-to-G) relations should change to a broader people participatory process of People-to-People (P-to-P). The international diplomats should practice the "Public diplomacy", which based on individual sovereignty rather than traditional national interest based sovereignty when they deal with failed states. The interest of citizen is much more important than the ivory tower national interest in this modern world.

b. Humanitarian intervention is Humanism

Again, we begin with the term humanitarian military intervention: some scholars claim how it is possible when using military and force for a humanitarian purpose. Let me borrow from the Robert Cox's saying that "theories are always for someone for some purposes".

There are also twin dimension of humanitarian intervention: a. Humanitarian Intervention (non-force actions) and b. Humanitarian Military Intervention (deploy force). The mission of humanitarian interventions has also providing humanitarian assistance such as distributing medicines, treating patients, rehabilitations, visiting prisons and torture camps, rescuing or saving strangers, reconstructions and roads from Burma to Beirut, from Kosovo to Maldives, from genocide to SARS and tsunami. Thus, interventions should not narrowly focus on the deployment of military It is an act of humanism, which is saving millions of people from the hands of bad governments and crisis.

My suggestion is that Burma needs humanitarian intervention right now and it should be respected for the people of Burma in line with the international human rights law and norms. The Humanitarian intervention should also emphasize humanitarian intentions and be recognized by international community.

Although I am not suggesting the military intervention, it should be the last option, not a first choice when we deal with this tyranny military thugs in Kyat Pay. I do agree with Dr. Teson that a positive humanitarian outcome is characterized by whether the intervention has rescued the victims of oppression, and the weather human rights have been subsequently been restored[10].

Therefore, it is a time to establish moral obligations based international society that should promote human rights, democracy, peace and humanism in Burma. It is right time to adopt humanitarian intervention toward the military thugs.


Naing Ko Ko is a postgraduate scholarship student in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He is a former political prisoner.


[1] The Report of the Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, published by the International Development Research Centre, PO Box 8500, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1G 3H9

[2] See "What makes of Anarchy" by Alexander Wendt

[3] See Robert Jackson, " Quasi-states, Dual Regimes, and Neoclassical theory: International Jurisdiction and the Third World (1987)

[4] Humanitarian Intervention and State Sovereignty by Mohammad Ayoob, International journal of Human Rights, Vol.6. No.1 ( Spring 2002), pp.81-102

[5] UN Declaration of Principles of International Law, 1970, see also, International Relations: Theories and Approaches by Robert Jackson et all , page 266-267, Oxford Uni Press-2007.

[6] Humanitarian Challenges & Intervention by Thomas G. Weiss, Cindy Collins, Second Edition, Westview Press, 2002.

[7] "Internationalization and Stabilization of Contracts Versus State Sovereignty by Passivirata, British Yearbook of International Law 315 at 331

[8] Two concepts of sovereignty by Kofi A. Annan, The Economist 18 September 1999

[9] Northern Iraq (1991), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-95), Somalia(1992-93), Rwanda(1994), Haiti(1994), Albania (1997),Sierra leone (19997-2000), Kosovo (1998-99) and East Timor (1999).

[10] Humanitarian Intervention by Fernando Teson, p, 106

[11] Humanitarian Intervention and State Sovereignty by Mohammad Ayoob, International journal of Human Rights, Vol.6. No.1 ( Spring 2002), pp.81-102

[12] Humanitarian Challenges & Intervention by Thomas G. Weiss, Cindy Collins, Second Edition, Westview Press, 2002


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