Myanmar and the irrelevance of national sovereignty

I attach no intrinsic value to national sovereignty or to any group rights whatsoever. Whatever significance or value is attributed to national rights (and group rights, minority rights, majority rights, gender rights, linguistic group rights, religious rights, ethnic rights or whatever rights) are derived significance or value – significance or value derived from human rights, that is, rights of individuals.

Given that starting point, it will come as no surprise that I support immediate outside intervention in the human tragedy that is unfolding in Myanmar/Burma. The deeply evil military regime that has ruled and destroyed that country for the past 46 years must be overthrown to safeguard the fundamental and inalienable rights of its people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This wicked junta now intends to prolong its miserable existence by preventing and subverting the efficient distribution of aid to the countless victims of the cyclone that struck the country on May 2.

Where are the United Nations when we need it? Why does it not condemn utterly and declare illegimate the Burmise regime – this Pol Pottish collection of murderous incompetents?

And where are the significant neighbours – China and India – when humanity needs them (I absolve Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand, because they are not in a position to intervene with force and effectiveness)? These countries talk a good game about the need for the old order to recognise that times have changed, and that a place at the top tables of global political and economic governance has to be reserved for both China and India (and possible for some of the other BRICs as well). I support that claim. But with power and status comes responsibility.

Neither China nor India have done more than tut-tut cautiously in response to the outrageous human rights violations of the Burmese military regime. This pathetic abdication of responsibility may not be surprising in the case of China, a country that engages routinely in the large-scale violation of human rights – in Tibet, in its suppression of independent religious worship and in its denial of freedom of speech and freedom of association to all its people. It is surprising in the case of India, a beacon of democracy on the Asian continent.

Why cannot the UN authorise a joint intervention by China and India in Burma, to neutralise/eliminate the collective of goblins that currently rule the country and to oversee the effective distribution of humanitarian relief? The legitimate political authority in Myanmar, in the person of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, is right there to establish a representative structure of government.
Surely, even if you believe that national sovereignty has a deep legitimacy of its own, rather than (as I believe) a purely instrumental, derived legitimacy, there has to be a point at which the cost of respecting and sustaining national sovereignty becomes grossly excessive? Of course, the effectiveness and costs of external intervention have to be evaluated carefully. But in Myanmar (and in Sudan (Darfur) and Zimbabwe) the point of no return for national sovereignty was reached long ago. If the international community sits on its hands despite the self-evident case for external intervention and for the overthrow of the ruling regime, it is a confirmation of moral cowardice or incompetence, or both.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website