Because of the world's failure to stop the butchering of 800,000 Rwandans, and other atrocities of the 1990s, the United Nations in 2005 adopted a principle known as the responsibility to protect, which sanctions international military action " should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. " Thus, a government that causes or does not prevent large-scale death inside its borders cannot use sovereignty as a shield from intervention to save lives. In effect, sovereignty lapses when masses die because a government either loses control or uses brutality to keep control. This manifestation of universal conscience is a natural consequence of the heightened awareness of human, and inhuman, conditions that come with globalization.
The responsibility to protect is being tested today by the Myanmar military junta's refusal to allow massive aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, just as it has been tested by the Sudanese government's support for genocide against the people of Darfur. In both cases, the rest of the world has been unwilling to act without the consent of the very regimes that commit these crimes against humanity, and some 200,000 people in Darfur and 100,000 in Myanmar have perished as a result. Of all countries remiss in their responsibility, China bears special scrutiny because of its influence with these regimes.
Motivated by its thirst for oil, China is chief guardian of Sudan's government, frustrating Western efforts to sanction and pressure its client. While others fail to uphold the responsibility to protect the people of Darfur, the Chinese subvert it. They have more than enough leverage to induce Khartoum to stop the killing and allow a large peacekeeping force into Darfur.
Now the world is blocked by Myanmar's junta from getting aid to those caught in Nargis's path. The United States and its allies have little sway with the junta, except for force, which they seem disinclined to use. Once again, the country with the greatest leverage is China. True, China has its own crisis -- a huge earthquake and its aftermath. But all it has to do in Myanmar is use its ample clout to break the junta's embargo on aid.
Apart from its commercial interests in Myanmar, Sudan and other such states, China has political reasons to claim that sovereignty trumps saving lives. This is not surprising, given how foreign powers molested China throughout much of its modern history. Today, China rejects international meddling in Tibet and treats Taiwan as no one's business but its own. With an eye to the past and an eye to the future, China wants to safeguard its long-cherished sovereignty while enjoying the fruits of global integration.
What, then, would motivate Beijing to honor the responsibility to protect? Two things. First, it should be less fearful: The responsibility to protect sanctions intervention only to stop killing and suffering on a grand scale, not to side with separatists. Second, China aspires to be, and could be, not just prosperous and powerful but also respected globally. It could take a seat at the head table of the world's institutions, e.g., UN agencies, World Bank, World Trade Organization, International Energy Agency and the G8 group of leading powers. China could join the United States, the European Union and Japan in guiding the global system in which it is now integrated and on which it depends for its continued success.
China obviously is big enough to be a world leader. But it is it principled enough? It is time -- high time -- for China to accept the code of conduct that befits a great power in an era of globalization. Nargis gives the Chinese a golden opportunity to do their fellow humans and themselves some good.
There are three scenarios for Myanmar. First, the regime continues to block large-scale aid. In that case, hundreds of thousands will die. Second, the United States and its allies threaten and if need be use force to deliver aid without the regime's consent. Their forces could readily brush aside or scare off whatever rag-tag force the junta could muster to resist; but they might then be left with responsibility to rebuild and manage the country. So far, not surprisingly, Myanmar's leaders appear unconvinced that the West will act against them.
In the third scenario, China fulfills the responsibility to protect. It tells the generals privately and bluntly that it will turn against them and back intervention unless they open their ports and airstrips to massive aid without delay. Were the leaders in Beijing to deliver this message, human lives would be saved, and China's reputation would soar. Nargis could mark the moment when China enters the world as a truly great power.
David C. Gompert, former senior director on the National Security Council, is a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Washington Post on June 17, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.