After years in which delegates had to listen to wearisome lectures about prudent fiscal management and PFI schemes, the Labour Party conference finally had something to get worked up about last week. "The whole world is now watching Burma," Gordon Brown declared. "The age of impunity in neglecting and overriding human rights is over," he insisted, warning not just Burma but Zimbabwe about the consequences of ignoring world opinion. It set the tone for a few days in which the Prime Minister got involved in a hectic round of activity, writing to the UN Secretary-General and the EU president, calling for international action and sending his Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, hurrying to New York for a meeting of the UN Security Council.
The result was as follows: Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution on Burma that would have imposed global sanctions. The Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, rejected calls for tougher sanctions. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, merely urged French companies not to make any new investments in Burma. The ASEAN nations issued a call for an end to the violence. The Indian government signed a $150m deal to explore Burma's offshore gas supplies. And a member of the junta continued to receive medical treatment in a luxurious clinic in Singapore.
This stopped somewhat short of Brown's promise that the world would not stand by and let the junta do as it wants. Nor did it bear out the Prime Minister's claim – a hostage to fortune if ever there was one – that "the age of impunity" for human rights abusers is at an end. The Burmese junta has ruled with impunity for decades, killing, enslaving and exiling hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and no one should have been surprised when troops opened fire on protesters last week. It was left to George Bush, of all people, to match words and deeds; the American President, who is reviled at home and abroad, added new conditions to what is already one of the toughest sanctions regimes in the world.
Bush is on his way out, and the catastrophe of Iraq will be his legacy as it is already Tony Blair's. But the contrast between his administration's tough approach to Burma and the frankly feeble EU common position – visa restrictions on leading members of the regime have been dismissed as little more than a "shopping ban" – highlights the absence of an international consensus on how to deal with even the most flagrant human rights abusers. Humanitarian intervention has got a bad name since the Iraq debacle but that doesn't mean that the problem of regimes that oppress, torture and murder their citizens has gone away. Burma is in the news now but last week it was Zimbabwe and it should be Iran, where two boys accused of rape have just been hanged in public, on an almost weekly basis.
It is quite possible to accept Brown's sincerity when he talks about human rights while questioning what his rhetoric is likely to achieve. The failure of so much of the world to respond to his demands for action on Burma suggests he has yet to grasp the limits of Britain's power and influence. In Zimbabwe, the UK has nowhere near as much sway as the South African government, whose refusal to get tough with a regime which is starving its people to death is nothing short of a disgrace. Burma's generals care so little about British opinion that they turned down a request for a visa in 1999 which would have allowed Michael Aris, Aung San Suu Kyi's husband, to visit his wife when he was dying of cancer. My friend Robin Cook was passionate about Burma and promised in his final speech as Foreign Secretary that "the Government will not let up the pressure on Burma until its people are free".
That was six years ago, and the Burmese people are more oppressed than ever. Cook also pressed hard for reform of the UN Security Council, arguing that its permanent members should be expanded to include Germany, Japan and representatives from Asia, Africa and Latin America – a proposal which might signal an end to the endlessly frustrating situation in which a single country can shield its client states through use of a veto. He got nowhere and David Miliband made almost identical proposals last week.
This is not an argument that democratic governments should just acknowledge their limits and do nothing. But it is to call for a reality check which would damp down some of the overblown rhetoric we've heard in the past week. Sadly, it isn't true that the entire world is horrified by events in Burma and Zimbabwe, and pretending that it is leads to bad politics; calling on China to put pressure on Burma, out of the goodness of its heart, as the Australian government did last week, is a bit like expecting an armed robber to remonstrate with a burglar. But there are steps the British Government could take, short of a military intervention for which there would be neither popular support nor military resources, and that's where Brown should have taken a lead last week. On Friday, as a news blackout began to descend on Burma, he was still calling for tougher EU sanctions instead of leading by example and banning British investment in Burma.
The other hugely effective thing the British Government could do is put real pressure on Burma's key ally, China, by threatening to boycott the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Both courses of action would have costs in this country, hurting British trade and British athletes who have trained for years for the Beijing games. But that is what happens when rhetoric ceases to be empty, and politicians are forced to acknowledge the existence of painful moral choices. Humanitarian intervention is difficult, expensive and morally right, despite its bad press in recent years. And the shocking scenes from Burma over the past week have shown that there are occasions when threats and promises are no longer enough.Reuse content