For nine days, the world waited in frustration for the military rulers of Myanmar to accept international aid needed to save at least one million survivors of a cyclone.
The storm and flooding on May 3 left at least 60,000 people dead or missing. Survivors have no shelter, food or safe drinking water, a situation that threatens to raise the death toll tenfold from disease and starvation.
Finally, yesterday, the first U.S. military cargo plane carrying water and blankets was allowed to land in the southeast Asian country, also known as Burma. Two more flights were planned for today. U.S. Navy ships cruise nearby, waiting for permission to ratchet up the relief effort.
But the aid is late, and it may be too little to save tens of thousands of survivors who have been drinking fouled water and eating spoiled rice. For more than a week, the secretive junta that rules Myanmar resisted all but a trickle of international relief. It wasn't that the United States and other countries turned their backs; they weren't being allowed access to the disaster zone.
If ever a crisis cried out for the United Nations to step in forcefully, this was it. Not only did the world body have a moral obligation to intervene, it had already created the vehicle.
In 2005, U.N. members adopted a protocol known as the "responsibility to protect," which says the international community has a duty to intervene when a nation cannot, or will not, protect its citizens from crimes against humanity. Even if it means violating a nation's sovereignty, the U.N. agreed, it has a responsibility to act in such circumstances.
France's foreign minister called for the United Nations to invoke this doctrine, as it became clear that Burma's government would not help its citizens. But China, Russia and other Security Council members blocked the move.
China, rocked by its own crisis yesterday - a devastating earthquake - has been eager to present itself as a world leader. It wants to use the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing to showcase its progress. But why should the international community be convinced that China truly has a new attitude when it blocks a desperately needed humanitarian aid effort for Myanmar?
The "responsibility to protect" protocol isn't a tool to carry out an imperialist agenda. Third-world nations in Africa endorsed its adoption by the United Nations. It should have been used in Myanmar's case, for the good of humankind.
U.N. members and senior officials should have exerted more pressure on China and others to allow a massive relief effort in Myanmar. The world body had an obligation to act quickly and decisively, and it didn't.