Wednesday, May 14, 2008

China's Crisis to Solve

The tragic events in Burma puts the Middle Kingdom right in the middle of it - again. Even after its own terrible natural disaster, Beijing surely has a brighter future than being the buddy of last resort for failed kleptocracies, especially in the year of its Olympic glory.

As predicted, the Olympic torches herald a bright window of opportunity for the rest of the world to lever their good causes. Khartoum is under pressure, the arms shipment returned with its lethal ballot substitutes undelivered to Mugabe, and now is surely the time to ensure that both aid and aid workers get into Burma.

The meteorological disaster and the resulting devastation in Burma are surely a test of the principle of th "Responsibility to Protect" that both China and Burma voted for, along with everybody else, at the 60th anniversary summit of the United Nations in 2005. Then Kofi Annan and his team persuaded the General Assembly that what happens inside countries was the business of the UN Security Council and that defences of "sovereignty" were not enough to protect governments that failed their duties.

The resolution targeted active crimes by a government against its own people, but the overall theme was that when a government failed in its responsibility to protect its own population there was not just a right but also a duty for the international community to do so.

The commission that did the leg work in preparation for the UN resolution also included a telling and highly applicable clause, that the principle also applied in the cases of "overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, or call for assistance, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened".

The Burmese generals have moved beyond tyranny, and even beyond ineptitude. Their refusal to accept foreign assistance, even to the extent of confiscating what the UN has landed, is a humanitarian crime against the Burmese people affected.

The junta is so stubborn and uncaring about the actual welfare of its own people that outside pressure may seem ineffective and even counterproductive. However, that is predicated on a constant stream of finance for the kleptocrats and the military of China and Burma's neighbours in Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) from the looting of its natural resources.

Surely now is the time for some quiet but firm diplomacy: a message to the Middle Kingdom that it should move beyond its footling calls for bilateral diplomacy and tell the generals to allow the United Nations to co-ordinate effective aid delivery.

A delicate hint that taking the issue to the Security Council would put the Olympic host in an unwelcome spotlight (yet again) may be enough. After Darfur, Tibet, Zimbabwe and now Burma, the calls for a boycott would surely bring a monsoon rain on the parade in Beijing.

And who knows, even after the Olympics, any astute guys in the Chinese government may learn to pick better friends, no matter what the short-term gain. You do not have to be in bed with Bush and Cheney to condemn the rulers of Zimbabwe and Burma.

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