An Offer You Cannot Refuse? Natural Disasters, the Politics of Aid Refusal and Potential Legal Implications

Therese O'Donnell, Craig Allan


After Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in early May 2008, the ruling regime imposed conditions upon the receipt and entry of disaster relief. This was met by a significant amount of international condemnation, which was often bolstered by invocations of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. The legalities of disaster aid refusal very quickly became a serious topic of academic and practitioner discourse. While the politics of aid donation is a much-studied terrain, the politics of aid refusal has, until recently, received less attention. However, a recent strain of research in political science has sought to remedy this imbalance. This article considers what international lawyers can draw from this discourse and whether such a perspective can inform legal reforms, notably those being currently proposed by the International Law Commission (ILC). As well as questioning assumptions regarding the apoliticism of disaster aid, this article also considers the links between humanitarianism and regime change, utilising the case study of Cyclone Nargis. The role of R2P and its muscular humanitarianism is also examined, as is the extent to which it informs the current ILC proposals. The final section of the article considers humanitarian perspectives and the waning influence of ‘new humanitarianism’, which challenged fundamental legal concepts of impartial, neutral, needs-based aid.


aid refusal; natural disaster; R2P; International Law Commission; Cyclon Nargis; Myanmar; humanitarianism; aid distribution

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Copyright (c) 2013 Therese O'Donnell, Craig Allan

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