The Lancet   |  October 4, 2008

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In May, Cyclone Nargis left nearly 140 000 people dead or missing in Burma, while the Government severely restricted international assistance. 1 More recently, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe cut off international assistance, apparently to manipulate an election but leaving millions without food aid or medical care. 2 The global community has a long and sad history of exalting human rights in the abstract but failing to protect them in practice. When political leaders wilfully block vital humanitarian aid to their people, they violate international human rights and potentially commit a crime against humanity. Such violations give the international community a legal right of intervention, with force if necessary. While intervention is best pursuant to authorisation from the UN Security Council, without such authorisation regional organisations or individual nations should prioritise the survival of large populations over the sovereignty claims of despotic leaders.

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