The people who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize have earned the right to act, at certain times, as representatives of the world’s conscience. This was never truer than in the statement on Myanmar issued last week by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and signed by eight of his fellow Nobel laureates.

After the ruling military junta shot and beat saffron-robed Buddhist monks and other citizens who were peacefully demonstrating for democracy last fall, most governments only dithered. The UN sent a special envoy to Myanmar to beg the despotic generals for some gesture of reconciliation with a population that despises them.

Bishop Tutu, in his own accompanying statement, was more pointed. “The election promised by the military regime is a complete sham,” he declared. Just as an arms embargo was imposed on apartheid South Africa after police massacred black demonstrators in the 1960s and ‘70s, Tutu said, the United Nations and the nations of the world should “immediately impose arms embargoes and targeted banking sanctions on Burma following the Saffron Massacre.” Governments habitually act — or refuse to act — for reasons of state. By calling on those states to impose penalties on the junta, Tutu and his fellow laureates are defending the interests of humanity. — International Herald Tribune