Tuesday, 10 June 2008

UN had to work with Myanmar junta, aid chief says

By Patrick Worsnip

NEW YORK, June 9 (Reuters) - The U.N. humanitarian chief defended on Monday the policy of working with Myanmar's military government after last month's cyclone, saying trying to deliver aid by force would not have helped the victims.

The official, John Holmes, said he believed the cooperation set up with the reclusive junta could ultimately assist international efforts to bring democracy to the Asian country.

Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 134,000 people after striking in the first days of May, sparked widespread condemnation of the ruling generals for initially blocking international aid workers from entering the country.

France at one point suggested invoking a "responsibility to protect," enshrined in a 2005 U.N. resolution, to deliver aid without waiting for the approval of Myanmar's authorities.

But Holmes, who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said he did not believe the Security Council could have forced the junta to be more cooperative or that military operations like airdrops could have worked.

"I've never seen a realistic alternative to the approach we've pursued spelled out by anybody," he told a meeting of the Asia Society in New York.

"Nor have I met anyone engaged in the operation on the ground who thought that there was an alternative which could actually have helped those most in need."

He said U.N. sanctions would not have been agreed by the Security Council, and even if they had been, they would not have benefited the cyclone victims in the short term.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner eventually conceded that the responsibility to protect applied to armed conflicts, not natural disasters. But he said countries on the Security Council that did not agree to pressure Myanmar into opening its doors to foreign aid were guilty of "cowardice."


Holmes said he did not think the responsibility to protect could never be applied to natural disasters, but "it would have to be absolutely the last, last, last resort."

Singapore's U.N. ambassador, Vanu Gopala Menon, told the meeting that threats of Security Council action had made the Myanmar generals initially less ready to cooperate.

"They are suspicious of humanitarian aid serving as a camouflage for regime change, a perception that is not entirely unreasonable when some countries have talked about invoking responsibility to protect and mounting relief operations without host government permission," he said.

During a visit to Myanmar, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon secured a promise on May 23 from senior general Than Shwe to let in foreign aid workers. U.N. officials say the junta has broadly honored that promise so far.

Holmes suggested the relationship established between the international community and Myanmar could "have a significance beyond the immediate humanitarian operation, if both sides wanted it to ... It certainly shouldn't be ruled out."

Everyone knew that once the cyclone crisis was over, attempts to tackle Myanmar's political situation would be back on the agenda, he said.

Since the generals cracked down last September on pro-democracy demonstrators, U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari has been trying to promote dialogue between them and opposition figures including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Gambari hopes to visit Myanmar again soon, but there have been few signs of political concessions so far from the junta, which shortly after Ban's visit extended Suu Kyi's detention.

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