Saturday, 17 May 2008

16 May 2008

What would you do about getting aid into Burma? The military regime are still restricting flights – and they really don’t want to let in any foreign aid workers. Tens of thousands of people – perhaps even hundreds of thousands – are dying as a result of Cyclone Nargis.

If you heard the programme on Tuesday, you’ll have heard me pressing the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, about it. He insisted that “all options” remain open, up to and including – in theory -- some form of military involvement in the aid effort.

Remember Bosnia? Aid convoys were sent in with military escorts. (It didn’t do too much good, in fact, because they soon got involved in protracted stand-offs with local militias at roadblocks. Sometimes, the aid was hijacked; more often, it simply sat there, for days, as the two sides indulged in lengthy negotiations.)

So why not helicopter the stuff in? Well, what happens when you land? Who distributes it? Who administers the medicines, staffs the field hospitals? If you drop relief supplies from the sky, huge amounts are damaged, the rest often goes to the youngest and strongest who can reach it first. Problems, problems.

I asked Mr Miliband about the new United Nations doctrine known as the "responsibility to protect" - or R2P in the jargon - which lays down that the international community has a responsibility to act to protect people who are at risk of genocide or ethnic cleansing. But might it also apply in cases of natural disaster?

"It certainly could," he said, "and we have been absolutely clear in New York that all instruments of the UN should be available. But no one should think that there is an easy or quick answer to this.”

Whenever we see appalling images of human suffering on our TV screens, whether as a result of conflict, or natural disaster, our immediate reaction is “Something must be done to help these people.” Just look at the outpouring of help that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami.

The relief agencies are poised and ready to move. They have stockpiles of supplies in warehouses all around the world, and teams of aid workers standing by. But there’s not much they can do if the government in place says No.

The commentator Martin Jacques argued yesterday in a piece on The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog: “All the talk of military intervention is thoroughly irresponsible. Above all, it is a disgraceful distraction from the overwhelming priority, which is how to help the people of Myanmar (Burma) in their hour of need.”

His favoured course of action is to get Burma’s neighbours involved – and that’s what the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is now doing. A regional summit is due to be held on Monday. Will it make a difference? We’ll see …

But I’m afraid I have to confess that part of me has some sympathy with the Comment is Free reader who responded to Jacques’s article as follows: “For the effing nth time, just get the effing aid in. Christ on a bike: how hard can it be?”

So I end where I started: what would you do?

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