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Myanmar, the Responsibility to Protect, and the Need for Practical Assistance

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This paper is concerned with the invocation of the responsibility to protect (RtoP) in the face of the Myanmar authorities' problematic response to Cyclone Nargis. It is animated by four main questions: (1) What were the dynamics leading to calls for the application of the responsibility to protect? (2) In what ways did the invocation of the RtoP affect the provision of humanitarian assistance to cyclone survivors? (3) How has the international response to Cyclone Nargis compared to the way in which Western powers in particular have responded to Myanmar's armed ethnic conflict? (4) What implications and conclusions follow from the Myanmar case for putting RtoP into practice? The article argues that while the applicability of RtoP was much in doubt with respect to the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, its principles nevertheless served as a rhetorical device for Western countries to influence both Naypyidaw and ASEAN as regards the practical need of facilitating humanitarian relief. Noting the available diplomatic support Myanmar enjoys in the UNSC, the paper suggests that the variation characterizing the international response to Myanmar's practices in the Ayeyawady delta and in the ethnic areas is also partly due to the different scale of fatalities and insufficient independent verification of claims regarding atrocity crimes. Generally, the Myanmar case has nevertheless accentuated the need for considering further what practical assistance regional and international actors can render to protect those that are or may become caught up in atrocities.

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