Wednesday, April 1, 2009

22nd Military Operations and Law Conference, New Zealand

We’ve just wrapped up the 22nd annual Pacific Military Operations Conference in Auckland, New Zealand. MILOPS is a yearly meeting of legal professionals from countries in the Pacific operating area. There are numerous countries represented at the conference, including the United States, Australia, Thailand, China, Japan, the UK, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Bangladesh, Tonga, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Mongolia, Maldives, and of course, New Zealand. This conference was amazing!

Presentations included “National Security Law in Transition: Assessing the First Three Months of the Obama Administration,” given by the Honorable Judge James Baker of the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces; “Legal Support to Military Operations,” given by Brigadier Kevin Riordan of the New Zealand Navy; “Information Operations,” given by three separate speakers, including a recent friend of mine, Colonel Dawn Sholz, USAF, and also Jennifer Yang Hui, a research analyst from Singapore; and finally, “Government Strategies for Humanitarian Assistance and Reconstruction,” given by Dr. Bernard Loo from Singapore.

The talk on the Obama presidency from Judge Baker was excellent. In general, he had high marks for President Obama, particularly with respect to his use of legal advisors on major issues like Guantanamo Bay and on making the Attorney General a full cabinet member. On the other hand, he echoed many when he said closing Guantanamo Bay before allowing his appointed working group to complete their assessment was “putting the cart before the horse.”

Also interesting was the talk by Ms. Hui on extremist websites advocating terrorism that have been sprouting up in Indonesia. But the best presentation by far was that of Dr. Loo on humanitarian assistance provided to failed and failing states. This one generated a lot of interest from the Southeast Asian countries, as many of them have recently been involved in relief efforts, either on the giving or receiving ends.

National sovereignty is very important in this area of the world, and assistance from outside countries is sometimes perceived as interference in internal affairs. Two questions from the audience caused quite a bit of discussion: 1) who decides when a state is failed or failing, and 2) should assistance be provided to individuals if a national government rejects that assistance. The second question was timely, as after Cyclone Nargis wrecked Burma in 2008, the Burmese government, a military junta, interfered with the delivery of food for political reasons.

From Wikipedia: “On May 3, 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated the country when winds of up to 215 km/h (135 mph) touched land in the densely populated, rice-farming delta of the Irrawaddy Division. Reports estimated that more than 200,000 people are dead or missing from Cyclone Nargis that hit the country's Irrawaddy delta. Damage totaled to 10 billion dollars (USD); it was the worst natural disaster in Burmese history. Adds the World Food Programme, "Some villages have been almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas are wiped out." The United Nations projects that as many as 1 million were left homeless; and the World Health Organization "has received reports of malaria outbreaks in the worst-affected area."

“Yet in the critical days following this disaster, Burma's isolationist regime complicated recovery efforts by delaying the entry of United Nations planes delivering medicine, food, and other supplies into the Southeast Asian nation. The government's failure to permit entry for large-scale international relief efforts was described by the United Nations as "unprecedented.””

“According to Thai Rath Newspaper of Thailand on 8 May 2008, in the afternoon (Bangkok time) of 7 May 2008, the Burmese junta permitted Italian flights containing relief supplies from the United Nations, and twenty-five tonnes of consumable goods, to land in Burma. However, many nations and organizations hoped to deliver assistance and relief to Burma without delay; most of their officials, supplies and stores were waiting in Thailand and at the Yangon airport, as the Burmese junta declined to issue visas for many of those individuals. These political tensions raised the concern that some food and medical supplies might become unusable, even before the Burmese junta officially accepted the international relief effort.” (End excerpt from Wikipedia.)

I’ve read anecdotes about the Burmese government requiring all assistance go through them, then relabeling it as coming from the junta leaders to boost their reputation with citizens. There were also allegations of hoarding and of reselling supplies for profit by corrupt government individuals. This wasn’t ineptitude, like the relief efforts for Katrina. This was willful denial of life saving food and medicine by military dictators for the mere purpose of enriching themselves and maintaining absolute power. It boggles the mind how a human being could allow others to starve and die in the name of power and money.

Dr. Loo argues that there are two reasons for providing humanitarian assistance: 1) it is the ethical, moral thing to do; and 2) it is in the world’s best interests to do so for security reasons, because it is those countries who need assistance that are most susceptible to radicalization by extremist forces. So, by providing assistance, the extremist forces are denied the ability to vilify others for not providing any assistance.

Personally, it is much easier for me to reach a conclusion as to whether assistance should be provided. I believe all countries and peoples have an obligation to ensure the safety and security of individual humans, no matter what country they live in. Another way to say that is, if a human suffers anywhere in the world, all should act to stop that suffering.

Whenever I bring this up in conversation, some are quick to point out that it is not possible to save everyone; the US can’t be the world’s police; we shouldn’t interfere in other country’s politics; etc. Frankly, none of these arguments hold water with me. If you want to argue that we can’t save everyone, so be it. We can debate the lengths to which we should go, and how many we can save before we run out of money. But don’t tell me we shouldn’t try to help the desperately needy in places like Darfur or Somalia because we can’t save everyone. We can save some, and that is enough. Even if we only save one, that is enough. We are standing for a principle, that all life is precious and worthy. That belief is the reason many of us joined the military in the first place. Someone has to stand against tyranny and oppression.