Rebel troops stampeded an african Union base in Darfur, Sudan, last month, murdering 10 African peacekeepers. That same week in Burma, the military regime killed a Japanese photographer and turned its machine guns on unarmed, barefoot monks. The violence in Darfur and Burma met with widespread international condemnation but scant concrete action. The perpetrators will almost certainly get away with murder.
What is going on? Even in an era of connectedness, when such outrages are beamed into living rooms around the globe, the world's major powers can't seem to agree on what should be done or who should do it. While many foreign critics of the U.S. express relief at the erosion of American influence, events in Burma and Darfur show the downside of the U.S.'s diminished standing: a void in global human-rights leadership.
The U.S. has raised its voice on Darfur and Burma louder than any other country. George W. Bush has regularly denounced the Sudanese campaign of destruction as "genocide," Washington has spent $2.5 billion on humanitarian aid to keep Darfur's refugees alive, and the Administration has spearheaded creation of a 26,000-person, U.N.-led peacekeeping force. When the Burmese regime cracked down on protesters, it was Bush who used his appearance before the U.N. General Assembly to announce that the U.S. would freeze the assets of Burma's repressive leaders and deny them visas. Yet when he urged "every civilized nation" to use its diplomatic and economic leverage to "stand up" to the regime, his appeal was largely ignored. Many countries acted as if they agreed with Burma's self-serving claim that the crackdown was simply an "internal matter." Notwithstanding the U.S.'s $500 billion military budget and $13 trillion GDP, its summoning power has dwindled.
The inaction is partly backlash against the discredited American messenger. Torture, "black sites," extraordinary rendition and the bungled, bloody invasion and occupation of Iraq have all made U.S. human-rights appeals ring hollow. But many countries that point to America's abuses are doing so to cover their self-interested, economic reasons for overlooking atrocities in Darfur and Burma.
U.S. leverage over Sudan and Burma is particularly limited. In 1997 Congress protested Khartoum's brutal tactics in southern Sudan by barring select Sudanese companies from involvement in the U.S. financial system. The same year, Congress punished the Burmese junta's "severe repression" by prohibiting U.S. investments in Burma. These measures have left the U.S. with few remaining business or diplomatic ties to terminate.
Others will need to step in. But China, the international actor with the greatest leverage over both countries, seems disinclined to use it. Two-thirds of Sudan's oil goes to fuel China's booming economy, and China's foreign direct investment in Sudan exceeds $350 million annually. China is Burma's leading arms supplier and trading partner and has just won the right to build a major oil pipeline there. Beijing's support for abusive governments would be troubling under any circumstances, but its influence is magnified because it is using its veto on the U.N. Security Council to block international sanctions.
Some observers hope U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his envoys can persuade repressive regimes to relent. U.N. officials must certainly use their pulpits to condemn abuses and mobilize international (not simply bilateral) punitive measures. But history has shown that envoys rarely succeed unless the Security Council is united behind them. Until Sudan and Burma begin to hear Chinese footsteps, they will have little incentive to engage in good-faith negotiations.
Given China's human-rights deficiencies and its reluctance to be seen to cave in to outside pressure, it will not budge easily. But China's wealthy trading partners must show Beijing that the long-term costs of uncritically backing murderous regimes exceed the benefits of doing so. We must elevate human safety alongside consumer safety, expressing the same outrage over massacred civilians that we do about faulty toys. And governments sending athletes to China's Olympic "coming out" must shine the torch on its support for brutal regimes.
It may take China decades to see that governments that kill at home make unreliable neighbors and threaten global stability. In the meantime a coalition of the concerned must insist that what is manifestly true of the economy is also true of human rights: in this age, there is no such thing as a purely "internal matter."