Should State Leaders Be Held Accountable for Protecting Human Security?

February 3, 2009

It has almost been one year since Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar – a disaster which left over 130,000 dead and its infrastructure in ruins. Initially, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross and MSF were quick to offer Myanmar medical supplies and humanitarian aid, but were rejected. Instead, the Myanmar government formally asked for UN assistance and stated their preference for bilateral governmental assistance. In addition, Myanmar officials rejected visas to humanitarian workers and this delayed disaster relief to the victims before the UN stepped in to mediate. It is still a mystery as to why Myanmar rejected foreign aid workers, but from this lesson we can understand the significance of cooperation among state and non-state actors amid natural disasters.

Looking from the human security perspective, the fatal flaw of humanitarian relief in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis was mainly attributed to the absence of cooperation between the state and the other providers.  The state plays a paramount role since it is the gateway to relief work, but without the NGOs’ expertise in grassroots relief and development, monetary aid alone becomes insignificant, since it cannot be distributed and utilized effectively.  It appears that Burma’s military dictatorship was keener to hide their inabilities to handle disasters than to admit that help was needed.

How can we hold state leaders accountable in these situations? Perhaps state leaders should be charged in the International Criminal Court should they allow such a crisis to unfold while they do nothing or when they stand in the way of aid to alleviate suffering.   Under what circumstances should the UN forcefully intervene for the sake of human security at an individual level?

We end with a question to all – should the UN or the ICC have a mandate to intervene in future cases similar to Myanmar to preserve human security? Will such actions deter future occurrences of negligence? Why or why not?

-Clara Fok and Andy Ho



15 Responses to “Should State Leaders Be Held Accountable for Protecting Human Security?”

  1. lmcinhk Says:

    Clara & Andy —

    Good questions. Happily, you have brought up important issues that we will cover in our next learning module on the “Responsibility to Protect”. In fact Gareth Evans, one of the architects of R2P, wrote in The Guardian last May ( that he thought the UN should not use R2P to intervene in Burma. In his words:

    “‘The responsibility to protect’ … is not about human security generally, or protecting people from the impact of natural disasters, or the ravages of HIV-AIDS or anything of that kind. Rather, “R2P” is about protecting vulnerable populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” in ways that we have all too miserably often failed to do in the past. And even then, the responsibility to protect norm allows the use of military force only with Security Council endorsement, and only as a last resort, after prevention has failed, when it is clear that no less extreme form of reaction could possibly halt or avert the harm in question, that the response is proportional to that harm, and that on balance more good than damage will be done by the intervention.

    If it comes to be thought that “R2P”, and in particular the sharp military end of the doctrine, is capable of being invoked in anything other than a context of mass atrocity crimes, then such consensus as there is in favour of the new norm will simply evaporate in the global South. And that means that when the next case of genocide or ethnic cleansing comes along we will be back to the same old depressing arguments about the primacy of sovereignty that led us into the horrors of inaction in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s.”

    Do you agree? LMC

  2. Winson Chu Says:

    I think that state leaders should not, and cannot, be internationally held accountable for the failure of government to provide adequate relief. I agree with Gareth Evans, in which if the concept was to be expanded so wide, it would dilute the strength of R2P and be unable to have substantive effect in the developing world.

    But more fundamentally, I think there is a rights-and-liberties issue. While individuals might have a liberty (i.e. a negative “right”) to be immune from genocide, individuals do not have an absolute right (i.e. a positive “right”) to receive relief and help in disasters. Such rights are limited by the specific social contract that citizens have with the state, and the ability of the state to intervene and provide relief. Under the current international regime, it would seem that such entitlements of its citizens towards relief and help (despite the severity of the absence of action) are still within the full sovereignty of the state. If entitlements, a concept that goes to the core of the state functioning and social contract, were to be under the purview of an international body, it would seem that to be a slippery slope for the Western countries to dominate and dictate the government policies of the developing world.

    Lastly, on a more practical issue, it seems that it is impossible for any international body to decide whether certain leaders fulfilled their “duty” (if such exists) towards their citizens. This is because these international bodies will be subject to two biases. Firstly, they will be subjected to a resource-and-cultural bias, in which these international bodies (which are dominated by the West) might apply first-world standards on these third-world countries. Secondly, they will be subjected to temporal biases, it is easy enough for us to retrospectively say that these state leaders should have done X, Y and Z. However, in light of the lack of information in many of these third world countries, it would be unjust for international bodies to apply such a standard on them.

    – Winson Chu
    (former student of LMC)

  3. lmcinhk Says:

    Winson —

    It pains my globalist instincts to agree with you, but I do. That said, Evans does allow that if there was an international (i.e. UN Security Council) consensus that the Myanmar regime had committed “crimes against humanity” (with criminal intent) in its willful obstruction of humanitarian relief to its citizens, then the allowance of R2P intervention might be appropriate.

    Given the reality that you paint above, my question to you is do you believe that there can be any enforceable standards of global justice?

    Good to hear from you…


  4. Jean-Francois Dupre Says:

    Dear Clara and Andy,

    thank you very much for this very thoughtful and timely piece of writing. However, I must agree with Winson and Lucy (and, by extension, Gareth Evans), and I find Winson’s conceptual framework especially relevant here.

    As Winson points out, there is the problem of agreeing on a definition of proper and effective intervention. Related to this issue is the risk of falling into patterns of witch-hunting, where perceived ineffectiveness in dealing with internal disasters could provide rather disingenuous moral grounds for infringing principles of state sovereigty (while this does not directly relate to our topic, you might want to think of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” types of scenarios). It seems to me that there are enough cases of flagrant human rights abuse that just cannot be dealt with at the moment; dipping into intervention ineffectiveness seems to go beyond the capacities of global actors at the moment.

    On the other hand, I think and the issues you raise on R2P in cases of nonintervention are eminently relevant to our topic. In fact, natural disasters can constitute infamous tools for covert genocides by nation-builders wanting to swamp their internal minorities. While some of these assumptions are still being debated, we can think of the 1930s famine in Ukraine, Ethiopian famines in the 1980s, or more recently, the situation in Darfur.

    Therefore, your suggestion certainly deserves pondering about. In fact, addressing these issues will perhaps be one of the greatest challenges of R2P in this century.

    Jean-Francois Dupre
    Human Security

  5. dmitces Says:

    I would like to take a more precise look at the structure of a theoretical body that could foster standards of global justice. The main questions in this respect are: who it might be comprised of; how many members are minimally required to legitimize its ‘universality’; and, if a discrete body towards which state-leaders will be accountable is concerned, how it might be possible to ensure its neutrality.

    Taking inspiration from such contemporary multilateral organisations as the UN, World Bank, WTO etc.. a great deal of critique is produced towards (as Winson Chu previously noted) unequal distribution of power assets and consequential domination of the West within them. At the same time, the UN Security Council presents a perfect example of how personal interests of a state affect (and often restrict) its actions on the international level. Therefore, my main idea (or probably merely an additional question) is how the international community could construct a body that would be deprived of any influence of its creators. Do you think it is at all possible or (at least within the current circumstances) it is nothing more than an idyllic utopia.

    Thank you,

    -Dmitrij Cesniuk

  6. andyho82 Says:

    Responding to Professor LMC:

    In the case of Myanmar, it involves a simpler D2A (desire to assist) by international organizations. D2A rests below R2P, and D2A is more akin to a knee-jerk reaction similar to going forward to help someone who has just fell down, while R2P involves a lot more considerations, especially with the possibility of using military forces – a matter some states will aggressively reject.

    Perhaps in this case, states and organisations perceived by a “risk-adverse” Myanmar to be a threat to the ruling junta’s image and power and hence are systematically rejected for entry, fearing that a simple D2A might escalate to a R2P.

    Likewise, the UN should take a heavier hand on this matter as a rejection of aid and logistical help could be the cause for many to perish. Genocide is a crime against humanity, and the inaction by the Junta in this manner could also be a crime to humanity.

    In short, we believe UN should intervene based on D2A and depending on situation (such as in a failed state), R2P might be appropriate.

    Andy and Clara

  7. andyho82 Says:

    Responding to Winson:

    Yes there might be rights and liberties attached to many of the security issues in the world, yet if we remain constantly bounded by a framework to micro-analyse specific social contracts and constructs of the absolute left, right or centre as the situation unfolds, we would have lost precious time in sending help to, in this case, the survivors of the cyclone. The UN isn’t leading a coalition take over Myanmar, but rather it had simply offered help and liaised with respective relief agencies.

    Repercussions from delayed assistance can be problematic. Denial and lack of sufficient action caused Zimbabwe’s cholera outbreak since August 2008 to spread to neighbouring countries with over 3000 dead. Early intervention could have slowed the spread of the disease, but yet, Zimbabwean visas were denied to some aid workers last year. This makes a UN or an international body to provide aid related intervention legitimate.

    It is stated in the UN’s declaration of human rights (Article 3) that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Despite the realism that often tinge on affairs of sovereignty, the world is increasingly liberal. In all, we still believe assistance should be given based on the ability of the afflicted state to resolve its problems. The main concern now is not who has an absolute right to anything or not, but on how to effectively communicate with states on disaster planning and also on how to properly evaluate their ability to handle the situation.

    In reply to the cultural-resource-bias, grain is grain, shelter is shelter and water is water. If someone is in need and there isn’t any help locally, they are in real need. And for the temporal biases, yes we do agree there is a lack of information on ground zero at times, but then again, aid is still a form of goodwill, unless of course the concerned state takes it as an insult.

    Andy and Clara

  8. limanannie Says:

    The Burmese leaders should be tried in ICC but I do not agree with a justification for R2P that sovereignty means responsibility. Whether or not there is sovereignty we should not kill others, otherwise we should be punished. This basic obligation should not be displaced because one is a leader of a society, especially when these leaders do not have the people’s mandate.
    R2P should be expanded to the situation in Burma because as J-F wrote, some state leaders are using natural disasters as an alternative to mass atrocity crimes they initiate. Such a definition of mass atrocity crimes will be vague. However, as Clara and Andy wrote, lives are so paramount that we should intervene despite this slippery slope and other problems such as abuse by powerful countries.
    As Betts wrote, sometimes keeping the leaders better improves the situation, but no one can fairly evaluate the situation and all leaders committing mass atrocity crimes should be tried for the sake of deterrence.
    As for abuse by powerful countries, we can only hope that after the Iraq War the US will, for its soft power, not abuse the power to intervene under R2P.

    Source: Betts, R.K. (1994). The Delusion of Impartial Intervention. Foreign Affairs, November/ December 1004. Vol. 73, Issue 6, pp. 20-34

    Annie Li

  9. Ho Wing Nam Marianna Says:

    I think the point on biases by Winson is a strong one. What’s meant by in need? How to distinguish good will from bad? As Andy and Clara have pointed out, the juntas are seeing foreign aid as equivalent to foreign interference and hence threat to their rule—is the government then taking the aid as an insult? It is hard to reach a consensus as to when and how state leaders are held accountable for failing to provide state relief.

    Human lives are no doubt paramount to sovereignty. But the question is how to avoid R2P from evolving into a right to intervene. The war in Iraq, for example, is R2P being exploited…With the Western dominance/Powerful country dominance in the UN and other international organizations, such exploitation is inevitable, and intervention may only lead to conflicts of greater scale.

    Also, although natural disasters have been used as genocides as pointed out by J-F, in the case of Myanmar, there is no evidence as such. It is true that inaction is also an action, and as to when an inaction to provide relief for one’s people amounts to a crime against humanity, that again has to be reached through a consensus.

  10. Pinky Chu Lai Man Says:

    In this Myanmar case, I do not think ICC shall have jurisdiction to prosecute the leaders of the military government. I am really sympathetic to the Burman, but I do think international law shall be respected in the case.

    First, if I am correct, Burma is not a states party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the treaty that established the ICC. Therefore, Burma is de jure not bound by the jurisdiction of ICC.

    Second, ICC has the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The most likely crime alleged to be committed by the Burma leaders is crime against humanity. But put a closer look to the definition of the crime, according to Art 7 of Roman Statute, it means the odious offences that constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings, and these acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice. Applying this concept to the Burma case, even if Burma is a state party to the Treaty, the question whether we can safely prosecute its leaders in ICC may be cast into doubts.

    On the other hand, UN is widely known as a “toothless tiger” in settling international disputes or crises. The latest example is its failure to stop the assault over Gaza by Israel due to US veto in the Security Council. If this case is put into the agenda of UN, I am quite sure China will be the one who would exercise its veto to tolerate Burma leaders, because China has long opposed to this kind of action on the basis that it goes against the sovereignty of nation states.

    Therefore, from the political reality, neither ICC nor UN can hold Burma leaders accountable.

    The only feasible and realistic way to help the Burman and solve its humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of natural disaster is through persuasion, rather than asking for a punishment against the military government which would just invoke its skepticism and harm the Burman eventually.

  11. clarafok Says:

    Responding to Dmitrij,

    We cannot agree with you more on the importance of constructing an international body that serves the interests of all members-states. However, with the increasing complexity and interdependency of various global issues, it is quite challenging to construct an “equal” international body that address all the concerns of its member states, not to mention the recent increase in member-states, especially from the developing countries.

    Nonetheless, even if international body to every state’s interest, there will still be a beneficial degree variation of the outcome. For example, despite the optimistic liberal idea that trade is a postive sum game, WTO members will not all share the same degree of positive sum. This difference in outcome will always considered unjust.

    Perhaps, the question is not whether if we can address all the concerns of the member states, but if member states could sacrifice some of their interests to reach a compromise.

    -Andy and Clara

  12. clarafok Says:

    You have raised interesting points as to whether the UN or ICC should have a universal mandate to intervene in future cases similar to Myanmar.

    The central argument is where to draw the line between aid and intervention based on the controversial definitions of ‘need’ and ‘crime’. What form of ‘aid’ constitutes as ‘intervention’? What kind of government action or inaction constitutes as ‘crime’? Is it appropriate to extend R2P to natural disasters? Should we give priority to the millions of lives at risk or the sovereignty of Burma’s military junta?

    Perhaps these are questions that touch upon one’s morals and values. For some of us, our academic rationality leads us to respect the sovereign decision of Burma’s military junta to reject aid at the expense of the victims. While UN intervention may lead to a slippery slope of Western domination, UN inaction may also lead to one where dictators abuse their power at the expense of their citizens. On the other hand, our sentimental human instincts influence us to prioritize the importance of lives over state sovereignty and to ignore the detailed specifications of a social contract.

    Since this is a course on global human security, perhaps we should analyze this matter from the non-traditional aspects of the human security model which emphasizes on the well-being of individuals and communities. State sovereignty is a traditional security concern whereas survival is a non-traditional security matter. We understand the controversial issues surrounding R2P, yet human lives are the building blocks of society, so what’s the point in state sovereignty when no one is left standing in Burma? Nonetheless, we would like to conclude our blog-post week with a final thought for you to ponder: What is more important to preserve the well-being of Burmese citizens, state-sovereignty or survival?

    — Andy and Clara

  13. Kong Cheuk Yan Eric Says:

    Human security is a security cannot be achieved through state power and sovereignty. It is the mean of protection of basic human rights for the whole population of people. The question that you raised is actually asking whether the sovereignty security is overriding human security.

    Sovereignty is essential for ensuring the people in a country can adminster their own country and prevent external forces from intervening internal adminstration. It is clear that sovereignty cannot guarantee human security. The tragedy in Myanmar is a good example to illustrate that. However, I think both sovereignty and human security cannot override each other.

    In Myanmar case, it’s obvious that the Myanma government should place life of her citizens in the highest priority and allows NGOs to provide subsidies and humanitarian support. But I don’t think Myanmar should be punished for not protecting their citizens. It is because it would be too dangerous for those developing countries or politically weak countries. We have no guarantee that those developed countries would not use the name of protection of human security to weaken the sovereignty of these countries. A weakened sovereignty has lower ability to protect the human security of its people. The cultures and values that the people hold would also be diluted. Eventually citizens would lose the right of having control of their countries. It is obviously useless for protecting human security. On the other hand, it may initiate civil wars or even terrorism if citizens found they lose their foundamental values and traditions.

    This maybe too pessimistic and going to far from the topic. However, there is not a single person wanting their country falling under the hands of foreigners. As a result, we should not use external punishment in order to protect human security. On the other hand, we should provide detailed guidelines for NGOs when they are providing support for developing countries so as to give those countries in helped confidence that NGOs are not coming for harming their sovereignty.

  14. Patty Montanio Says:

    Hello Clara and Andy: Well I have read your article and comments about it content, and it’s unbelievable that there still are countries that cannot accept help because of their thoughts or their afraid of losing power forces. It is so disturbing how Myanmar governors couldn’t take care about consequences of a natural disaster like Nargis cyclone. We need to think about how disasters or natural phenomena could affect economical security of citizens; food security, how people is going to get their food and basis products to survive if they have lost everything; health security, if Red Cross offered it help, government at least should considered it; at the other side, I think government thought about community, political and personal security, because if the Myanmar governments is communist they are trying to protect their people, by getting away external people, without matter any cause, maybe they thought that damages could be worst if they let other people get in into the city because of the particular intentions, they could be for good, but also they could be for bad. In situations like this there are lots of factors that city’s governments should consider, and then we can study situations in general or particular ways.

    Great job! Congrats! Greetings from Mexico! =)

  15. luis Says:

    Perhaps the situation is out of context. I dont know why Myanmar reject international aid, maybe because wanted to establish its sovereignty and prove it can solved ‘natural’ disasters. Or maybe they thought UN help was more helpful than red cruz crusade.
    But if the case is that leaders should be internationally held accountable for the failure of government to provide adequate relief, then the whole world would it be in a serious problem.
    Now, what about the scenario of August 2005, when Katrina hits the Gulf of Mexico and destroyed New Orleans more than any other city in the southeast coast of USA?, should the US governments be held accountable for that natural disaster? eventhough they kwen the possibility of a massive disaster and didn’t do more? or what about the case that CUBA and Castro itself extended to US government resources to help their situation, remember US reject that Cubains help?, should they be held accountable?
    What about major disaster in Mexico city sep 85?, the major sismo register in Mexico and that destroyed 7 of each 10 buildings of the city, does the governemnt should be acountable?. There are lot’s of scenarios, every nation has their own sovereignty to decide what is best for their people. Maybe is necessary to separe negligency from diverse course of action, dont you think?

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