May was the month of disasters. At the start of May, typhoon Nargis hit the world’s 13th poorest country, Burma (Myanmar), flooding its entire South. The figures of the Red Cross registered 127,990 dead and 2.5 million people in need of aid, and the international agency Oxfam said in its press release that, in the coming weeks and months, the lives of up to 1.5 million people would be in danger due to the risk of disease.
Then the disaster crawled to the North. was shaken by a sharp earthquake which started near
In both Burmese and Chinese cases, foreign aid organizations were eager to provide relief. However, for political reasons, the national government of decided to block foreign aid. This contrasts with the Chinese response, welcoming aid. What if a concerned nation rejects help? Should other nations respect the sovereignty of the country, or ignore national borders to save individual lives? These are the dilemmas of humanitarian intervention.
In casualties from flooding are rising at the moment, but ’s military government is pushing away aid teams and the received aid will only be distributed through the government. A staff member of World Vision, an organization for overseas aid, said, “To minimize the damage aid teams should be immediately sent to the place. But ’s junta set up its visa restrictions, thus stopped international agencies meeting millions of men, women and children in need of help.”
Whether the Burmese junta will properly distribute food to its people is also in question. AP news referred to a witness in , who accused the junta of reserving aid-donated cookies high in calories for it and distributing low quality substitutes to the flood victims. “The current Burmese regime has failed every one of its policies and is the worst in the history of humankind. It is only interested in keeping itself in power and not saving our families who are dying at the moment. International society should not respect the junta and hesitate to go in for help,” said Soe Moe Thu, who is a member of Burma Action Korea, a group of people who came from to work in .
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also expressed anger over the junta’s inhumanity and proposed forcing the delivery of aid on . His call was echoed by Andrew Natsios, the former head of the US Agency for International Development. In Natsios’s contribution to Wall Street Journal, he said, “Sometimes you have to intervene against the wishes of the local government to protect human rights.”
Similar opinions are not just applied to . “To help North Koreans suffering from chronic hunger, all the aid teams and properties go through the Kim Jong-il regime. We cannot be sure if the food is being properly distributed to the people. Therefore, even if refuses, monitoring of aid must be forced,” said Shin Bo-ra, a reporter for Bait, political webzine for university students.
But, if countries are allowed to intervene to protect human lives, would that really stop people from suffering from disasters? Professor Jasper Kim (International Studies) points out that there are potential problems in humanitarian intervention. “The biggest problem of humanitarian intervention is that it can collide with the principle of sovereignty of states. Forcing other states act in certain way can lead to a backlash, making the states disrespect all the decisions of international society,” said Kim.
There are many cases of humanitarian interventions that are considered as failures too. Park Eun-hyung (Political Science & Diplomacy, 2) said, “I believe that the Iraq War was the typical case which a nation state pursued its own benefit in the name of humanitarian intervention. Inflicting pains to innocent civilians can not be called as ‘humanitarian.’”
Sometimes the international society does not fulfill its responsibility after interventions, which aggravates the situation. Joel Charny, the Vice President of Refugees International, said on the organization’s website, “Efforts to support democratic movements in only strengthened suppression. Problems surrounding are a comfortable intellectual debate for Westerners, but they are a stark reality for millions of Burmese who suffer under the threats of the junta.”
Beyond all the dilemmas, the outcries of people confronting the disasters must be listened to carefully. “I believe that international society exists to protect the human rights of individuals, something which is often overlooked. Nothing can come before helping people who are suffering from catastrophes and in need of help,” said Shin Dong-hee (Korean Literature, 3), who has participated in urihanabyul, an organization for voluntary work in overseas.