Asia Crisis

France urges U.N. council to act on Myanmar cyclone

(Writes through with Security Council meeting, changes dateline)

UNITED NATIONS, May 7 (Reuters) - France suggested invoking a U.N. "responsibility to protect" in cyclone-hit Myanmar to deliver aid without the military junta's approval, but its bid to make the Security Council take a stand was rebuffed on Wednesday.

The United Nations recognized in 2005 the concept of the "responsibility to protect" civilians when their governments could or would not do it, even if this move meant intervention that violated national sovereignty.

"We are seeing at the United Nations if we can't implement the 'responsibility to protect,' given that food, boats and relief teams are there, and obtain a U.N. resolution which authorizes the delivery (of aid) and imposes this on the Burmese government," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters.

But John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said "confrontation" would be unhelpful because discussions with the government were slowly moving forward.

"I'm not sure that invading Myanmar would be a very sensible option," he said in response to criticism that the United Nations was not doing enough.

"We are having useful and constructive discussions with the authorities of Myanmar," he told reporters.

"It is moving in the right direction. We want it to move much faster clearly. But I'm not sure it would help at this moment at least to embark on what could at least be seen by some people as a confrontation."

French U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert asked the Security Council on Wednesday to call for a humanitarian briefing and issue a statement urging greater cooperation.

He told reporters he was very disappointed that two or three countries had blocked that step on procedural grounds, saying that it was not a security matter.

"We think it is time for the Security Council to express its concern ... to exhort, to ask, to call on the government of Myanmar to open its border and accept the access of humanitarian workers," Ripert said.

He said France and others had ships and supplies standing by but were being rebuffed by the military junta.


A Western diplomat said China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia had argued during closed consultations against the Security Council getting involved. The diplomat said China's envoy compared the crisis to a deadly heat wave in France in 2003, questioning why the Security Council should step in now when it did not do so in the French case.

Kouchner told France 2 television the Security Council would take up the matter again on Thursday. "We're not despairing but for the moment, it is blocked," he said.

State Myanmar radio and TV, the main official sources for casualties, reported an updated death toll of 22,980 with 42,119 missing and 1,383 injured in Asia's most devastating cyclone since a 1991 storm in Bangladesh that killed 143,000.

A U.S. diplomat in Myanmar said diplomats there were receiving information that there may be over 100,000 deaths.

The United Nations said it had obtained permission from the military government to fly emergency supplies to Myanmar, but aid workers were still waiting for visas.

Holmes said four Asian U.N. officials who do not need visas because of their nationality had received clearance to go in. But up to 100 U.N. staff of various agencies were still waiting. He said that while they had not been refused visas, the process was taking too long.

Holmes urged Myanmar to waive visa requirements and customs clearance for aid supplies, noting that similar waivers were granted by Pakistan and Iran after earthquakes there.

Kouchner said the French, British and Indian navies had ships directly opposite the worst-hit areas and were ready to help if Myanmar authorities gave the go-ahead.

"It would only take half an hour for the French boats and French helicopters to reach the disaster area, and I imagine it's the same story for our British friends," he said. (Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Paris; Editing by Xavier Briand)