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U.N. Chief Details Diplomatic Efforts on Myanmar Crisis

May 16, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Two major natural disasters have hit Myanmar and China in as many weeks. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon discusses the two crises, and diplomatic efforts to get the Myanmar government to quicken its pace of allowing in foreign assistance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amid growing international pressure on the Myanmar government to permit foreign relief workers into the country, we hear from the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon.

Ray Suarez spoke with him this evening.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Secretary-General, welcome back to the program.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure.

RAY SUAREZ: Just a few moments ago, we got a report from a correspondent who’s been in the Irrawaddy Delta for much of the past couple of weeks. And he gave us a report of a mounting humanitarian catastrophe; the scale rises by the day.

Are you still optimistic at this point that the international community will be allowed to help save the tens of thousands of people of Myanmar who are still in danger?

BAN KI-MOON: I’m very sad. It’s a great human tragedy.

As secretary-general of the United Nations, I’m mobilizing all possible United Nations agencies, funds and programs, aid workers.

And I have dispatched my undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs to Myanmar. He is going to have a meeting with the Myanmese senior authorities, and he will try to inspect the affected areas.

And rest assured that I’m doing my best efforts. I cannot tell you that I’m optimistic or pessimistic, but the aid has been too slow. And I urge Myanmese authorities to be more flexible in allowing the flow of humanitarian assistance and aid workers.

RAY SUAREZ: Has there been any encouraging movement in that direction? Have your various agencies been allowed to put more people into the country, into the affected areas?

BAN KI-MOON: Yes, in fact, there have been some flexibilities shown by Myanmese authorities most recently. And I have been talking to all the leaders in the region, particularly ASEAN countries and other world leaders.

And I have convened an urgent meeting in the United Nations with all ASEAN countries and major donors. We have made a very good meeting.

Even this morning, I have called in all these ASEAN ambassadors. They are now cooperating, but it’s still too little, far, far, far short.

I’m doing my best. We have delivered, at least by this time, 60 trainloads of humanitarian food and relief items. I’m very much heartened by such very swift and strong support from the international community.

Myanmese authorities should really cooperate fully so that these relief items can be delivered without any delay to the people in need.

'Focused on saving lives'

Ban Ki-moon
U.N. Secretary-General
My message is quite clear. This is very serious human tragedy. The whole international community is ready to provide necessary assistance.

RAY SUAREZ: You've been trying to get directly in contact with the leader of the military junta, General Shwe. Have you been successful?

BAN KI-MOON: I have been trying to talk with him directly over the phone. Unfortunately, I have not been able to speak with him, but I have sent two letters to him. I was told that he had read my letters.

And I am going to send another letter through my undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mr. John Holmes, who will be visiting this Sunday Myanmese authorities. I understand that he's now scheduled to meet with the prime minister of Myanmar on Sunday.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary-General, if you could get General Shwe on the phone, what would you tell him?

BAN KI-MOON: My message is quite clear. This is very serious human tragedy. The whole international community is ready to provide necessary assistance. It's not about politics; we are now talking about saving human lives.

Therefore, while I would respect their sovereign right to look after their own people, in view of the magnitude of this crisis, they need international community.

Simply, their capacity has been worn out. And even United Nations is having difficulty with only 1,500 people on the ground. Their capacity has been exhausted already.

Many people are waiting in nearby countries, including Bangkok, Thailand. Therefore, they should expedite the issuance of visas.

RAY SUAREZ: Representatives of several U.N. members have started to speak publicly about a concept in international law called the responsibility to protect and have speculated about the possibility of a forced humanitarian intervention without the cooperation of the Myanmarese authorities.

Does this worry you, this kind of talk?

BAN KI-MOON: I have been doing my best efforts, focusing on saving human lives. This is a humanitarian crisis. Therefore, it would be much desirable that our energy and time should be focused in saving lives.

This concept of responsibility to protect is also very important one, adopted and approved by the world leaders in 2000. But this is mainly for the purpose of international crimes, such as genocide, international war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.

Therefore, at this time, we'd better focus our time and energy on these humanitarian issues, rather than political consideration.

I'm quite convinced that we will have an opportunity later, when we help those people on humanitarian ground urgently, then we will discuss all other matters.

RAY SUAREZ: But it sounds as if you're saying that so far, in your view, this doesn't reach the threshold of a crime against humanity, that blocking help for people who need help doesn't constitute a crime against humanity.

BAN KI-MOON: I'm not discussing anything about criteria or threshold of this concept of responsibility to protect. I am only emphasizing that this is time for humanitarian actions at this time.

RAY SUAREZ: I understand that the people of the delta are also racing the clock in having to get another rice crop into the ground. They have to get one fairly soon, don't they?

BAN KI-MOON: About 20 percent of their rice paddies have been damaged, and this planting season has already started.

Therefore, before it is too late, it would be extremely important and crucially important that international community should provide necessary agricultural input, so that they can start planting for their harvest.

Aid to China

Ban Ki-moon
U.N. Secretary-General
I'm quite confident that, with the national capacities and resources, Chinese government can mobilize. I'm sure that they can overcome this tragedy very soon.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, the international community is watching as China is trying to cope with its terrible earthquake. How has the U.N. been involved in China?

BAN KI-MOON: Again, it is another terrible human tragedy. I have conveyed my condolences and sympathies to Chinese authorities.

The United Nations again has been mobilizing necessary assistance, including the fund from the Central Emergency Response Fund. And I have dispatched expert relief staff to Chinese government, to the scene.

At the same time, I would like to commend the very well-organized rescue and relief workers under the leadership of Chinese authorities.

And this is -- again, the international community should pay attention. This is a very important and serious human tragedy. And we need to pay due attention, as much as we're addressing Myanmese authorities.

At the same time, I'm quite confident that, with the national capacities and resources, Chinese government can mobilize. I'm sure that they can overcome this tragedy very soon.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, thanks for talking to us.

BAN KI-MOON: Thank you very much. It has been a great pleasure.