Darfur. Zimbabwe. Burma. On each occasion the world rouses itself to a passion of concern. Threats are made. Sanctions are discussed. And at the end of it, nothing very much happens at all. The killings go on in Darfur. Zimbabwe sinks ever more rapidly into the economic abyss. The Burmese army arrests the monks, re-imposes order and a silence settles internationally.
And so the call goes out to take ever-tougher action against the recalcitrant regimes and to demand that China, South Africa or whoever intervene to force the offending government to change their ways. Iraq, it is argued, may have made armed intervention more difficult if not impossible, but that should not deter us from pursuing humanitarian intervention with every other means at our disposal.
That the moral outrage is justified there is no doubt. That the West cannot sit idly by and just let it happen is equally compelling as a cry. But what? Iraq provides not just a warning of the penalties of military intervention, it provides an even grimmer moral on the futility and inhumanity of sanctions.
For more than a decade since 1992 the world imposed a UN-mandated sanctions regime that impoverished the people, led to a massive surge in child deaths, gave rise to growing corruption not just in Iraq but in the UN and the West and effectively buttressed the position of Saddam Hussein within his country by giving him the patronage and power of arranging oil exports and organising aid. It cannot be proved but there was at least a chance that Saddam would not have survived that decade if it had not been for the UN sanctions.
No one country's situation is like another's, of course. And there have been times that punitive action has worked, if nothing else by making international disapproval clear and making life more uncomfortable for a regime. Sporting and other restrictions probably did play a part in ending apartheid. But the international community was dealing there with a white minority government that needed support from the outside white world. When it comes to Burma, or for that matter Zimbabwe or the Sudan, you are dealing with countries that don't need the West and don't need to be part of the global economy.
Their economies would benefit from open trade. The lot of their people would certainly be improved by it. But the position of the government would not be. Indeed the more isolation, the stronger a repressive regime becomes. Cut off from access to the outside, dependent on government controls and handouts to survive, ordinary people actually become more subordinated by the state than otherwise.
This is the problem with the moral posturing that goes on about these humanitarian disasters. So much of the activist agenda is set by groups demanding political change. They may well be right. The world would be a better place without oppressive regimes. But if you make regime change the object of your policy and isolation the means of effecting it, the people you are most likely to hurt are the civilians not the rulers.
As the Save the Children's director in Rangoon, Andrew Kirkwood, pointed out at the weekend, the concentration on political demands was making the world forget that there was a humanitarian disaster going on in Burma which needed their urgent and sustained attention.
Even if there is not a lot the West can do short of invasion, you can of course attempt to pressure other countries which have more influence, such as China. But one needs to be careful in the case of Beijing. Greater isolation of regimes such as Sudan and Burma suits China, which can thereby gain a greater hold of its resources and trade. Enticing though the idea may be, the people who brought you Tibet and Tiananmen Square are unlikely to be advising the Burmese junta on the way to restore democracy. They're more likely to be doling out advice on how to stop it.
You can certainly try to gather in China through the aegis of the UN Security Council. But their answer is likely to be - as it was - a very firm retort that it is not the job of the UN to interfere in the internal matters of another country. And legally they are right. Trying to impose sanctions through the UN perverts the constitution of that body and raises the widespread accusation that it is being used as a political tool of the West.
This need not be a counsel of despair. The outside world is right to be shocked at what is happening in Burma. It should keep it at the top of the public mind. The Europeans have every right to say to their companies, such as Total, that they don't want them assisting the regime there. There's a huge amount more that we can, and should, be doing to aid the victims, and provide help and homes for the refugees. But in the end we have to recognise our limitations.
Regime change comes, if it comes at all, from within - just as in Romania and the Ukraine - when the people have had enough and the soldiers are no longer willing to shoot them. The hope for Burma is that it will implode, that a regime which has aroused such ire through the country by doubling the price of fuel and suppressing the monks (most of whom come from the countryside), never mind embarking on a stupefying misapplication of resources to move the capital inland and thus isolating the government even further from its own people, cannot survive. But it is a hope. However frustrating, it is not in our remit to ensure it happens.
© 2007 The Independent