Protecting the Responsibility to Protect

Spring 2009

This paper proposes to clarify the debate over the use of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) concept. This important idea has been developed in the international arena for years, and today carries a legacy of the international community’s failure to address major crises of the 20th century. This heritage of failure continues to affect the R2P in the fight against its misleading conflation with the assumed right to military humanitarian intervention outside of UN Security Council measures. This misuse of the R2P concept, I will argue, is dangerous and can strongly undermine its effectiveness and development.

The creation of the “Responsibility to Protect” concept stems from the inability of the international community either to prevent or address the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, alongside the necessity to better manage the post cold-war context. At the root of this is the question of whether or not the responsibility to act is connected with major human rights abuses.  The dichotomy presented to the international community by the responsibility to protect principle is long standing, expressed in the tension between issues of state sovereignty amid perceptions of transnational interference in domestic affairs, and the universal respect for human rights and human dignity.  Each country to have signed the UN charter has agreed to these principles of respect and tolerance. The 20th century was marked by some of the worst atrocities committed by human beings: the genocide in Rwanda, the massacre in Srebrenica, crimes against humanity and gross violations of human rights committed in Darfur, Sudan, Congo, and Cambodia.  These events raise the question of the responsibility of the international community once states are not able or not willing to protect their own populations.

The principal argument to emanate from reflections on those tragedies was a generic and threatening “right to protect” concept.  This was comparable to a perceived right to militarily intervene in another country with the purpose to protect civilians.  On one side, this was a very strong demonstration of the willingness of some states to take their responsibility seriously.  On the other, it was a very strong attack against state sovereignty, and against the principle of military non-intervention outside actions of the UN Security Council. The idea was focused on the concept of the “right” to intervene, and still was not formulated as a “responsibility”.

The first definition of the Responsibility to Protect was developed under the lead of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), in the December 2001 report, “The Responsibility to Protect”, by the Canadian International Development Research Centre. Two key principles were defined as being fundamental to the concept of responsibility: the first is that state sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of a people lies with the state itself; the second is that, where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.[1]

If we look at the UN charter, sovereignty is one of the obligations of a state in maintaining peace and security. If a state were to fail to protect its citizens, it would simultaneously and automatically fail to fulfill its internal duties, and be unable to maintain international peace and security.[2] Looking at the definition these principles in the 2001 report, it is evident that the intent behind their formulation is to provide a new definition of the concept of sovereignty, in an attempt to guide it in a new direction, focusing on the notion of “sovereignty as responsibility.”[3]

The focus shifted from discussing what could warrant an intervention, to a supposed broader concept of protecting those in danger.  This transition was clearly observed at the 2005 World Summit, with consensus on the text: “Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Furthermore, member states also showed their commitment by accepting that responsibility, pledging to act in accordance. “The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help states to exercise this responsibility, and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.”[4] The resulting outcome documents referred to the responsibility of the international community in using “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”[5] Finally, the international community gave further commitment to supporting states. “Building the necessary capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and [to commit] to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.”[6]

This recognition of the R2P concept by the UN, and other regional organizations such as the AU[7], was followed by an intense debate on whether this would prove practically useful when required.  G77 countries maintained that the R2P agenda gave rich and powerful countries the right to engage in ‘humanitarian interventions’, pointing to the justification offered for the Iraq war.  Attempts to further the R2P concept often fell foul of a basic misunderstanding of the idea, along with an unwillingness to invest in the preventative and cooperative aspects of the doctrine.  Until 2009, there were few cases in which the R2P concept could be said to apply.

The reaction to the 2007 collapse of Kenya was highlighted the following year by Kofi Annan and numerous others as a demonstration of the application of the R2P concept.  The implementation of R2P in Kenya could be attributed in part to the fact that the international community, including key African leaders, the African Union and the UN were cohesively working together, and more importantly, supporting the mediation conducted by Annan.  This unity was a key element of the resulting success,[8] with an agreement finally reached, averting the collapse of the entire country under more violent clashes, and without the use of military intervention.

There is an important point here that seems to have escaped the proponents of the cases of Iraq or Zimbabwe as examples of R2P: the unwillingness to consider the precise and strict limits that R2P incorporates. R2P is not a generic concept designed to furnish each country with the excuse of “protection”, to renege on respecting the sovereignty of other states.  Neither is it aimed at reversing respect for the exclusive endorsement of force by the Security Council. R2P has been developed in international agreements as a summary of all the ideas embodied by the UN charter, not as a substitute. The main focus has always been on diplomatic and peaceful means to establish peace and security, and not a reliance on military intervention. Humanitarian intervention carried out without the endorsement of the Security Council cannot be reconciled with this principle for several good reasons. First, if this were the case, R2P would change both the structure and the guiding ideas behind the UN charter, and there is no sign of willingness for such a dramatic turn.  If we remove the notion of R2P from the obligations of the UN Charter, R2P will be no more than an excuse used by states to further their own interests overseas. Destroying the monopoly held by the Security Council on decisions over intervention does not ensure that the system of inequality represented by the SC is going to disappear.

R2P is born from the failure of the international community in fulfilling their duties.  R2P does not express anything new, it is the attempt to collate and summarize the main concepts which are fundamental to the creation of the system of international community: the protection of people through the establishment of an environment of peace and cooperation between countries. R2P can also be seen as an expression of the enthusiasm of the international community to look beyond the narrow priorities of the political agenda when it comes to protection from grave breaches of international law. Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur were not situations characterized by a lack of means to be solved.  Those situations demonstrated a lack of geopolitical interest in their solution. It is this lack of political will, and not the absence of state responsibility, that is the main driver for the failure of the international community to address many international crises.

If the principle of R2P is to be used as an effective tool, we must understand and respect its limitations, because it is these constraints that make the principle useful. The first limit is one of means; R2P is focused on peaceful ways to solve conflicts, through the use of Art. VI and Art. VIII of the UN charter[9].  R2P must be placed in the broader framework of UN principles, notably that the use of force allowed by Chapter VII must remain the last and consented measure to take. The second limit is one of jurisdiction: R2P comes into effect when there is certain and concrete proof of “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity[10]”, or when there are clear signs of the imminent potential of those crimes.

Again, R2P is not a new idea, but one that has been developed and built upon over the last 10 years, and it is important to consider it in its entire evolutionary process, not just as a set of final conclusions. Using the principle outside its correct context is more dangerous than helpful: the risk is that the concept is stripped of any real significance and transformed into a vague utopian ideal, resulting in generic permission for states to use force not endorsed by the Security Council.

The misunderstanding of the R2P principle and its subsequent identification with military humanitarian intervention can undermine its effectiveness and development as an important principle in the arena of international affairs, and serve as false justification for military interventions which serve the political interests of the major international powers.


[1] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility To Protect, December 2001, The International Development Research Centre

[2] UN Charter.  Preamble.

[3] Francis M. Deng, Sadikiel Kimaro, Terrence Lyons, Donald Rothschild, and I. William Zartman, Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1996).

[4] General Assembly – UN – A/60/L.1, Sixtieth Session, 2005 World Summit Outcome, paragraph 138

[5] General Assembly – UN – A/60/L.1, Sixtieth Session, 2005 World Summit Outcome, paragraph 139

[6] General Assembly – UN – A/60/L.1, Sixtieth Session, 2005 World Summit Outcome, paragraph 139

[7] The constitutive act of the AU is the first international agreement, which recognizes the right to intervene in particular situations as legal. Art 4(h) says that “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”

[8] Roger Cohen, How Kofi Annan Rescued Kenya, August14, 2008, The New York Review of Books

[9] General Assembly – UN – A/60/L.1, Sixtieth Session, 2005 World Summit Outcome, paragraph 139

[10] General Assembly – UN – A/60/L.1, Sixtieth Session, 2005 World Summit Outcome, paragraph 139; UA Constitutive Act, art.4

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