The Responsibility to Protect: With great power comes great responsibility

The Problem

Imagine you’re living during World War II and you’ve heard about the horrors of the holocaust happening in Europe. Would you hope that your government sends in troops and tries to stop the atrocities? Would you want more countries, the world even, to band together and bring an end to all the suffering? Or does only Europe have the right to decide what happens within its borders? 

The Explanation 

The idea that countries have supreme authority over what happens within their borders, also called sovereignty, was formally established in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia and reiterated by the United Nations Charter of 1945. Sovereignty prevents countries from intervening in each other’s internal affairs to promote international stability. The supremacy of sovereignty was first challenged by the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which commits signers to intervene in another country to prevent genocide. The Responsibility to Protect, established in 2001, further eroded the norm of sovereignty by extending the intervention to war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.  

Definition of the Responsibility to Protect

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or R2P, declares that a nation state’s sovereignty comes with the responsibility to protect its civilians from atrocity crimes. When a nation-state is unable or unwilling to fulfill this responsibility, then the responsibility transfers to the international community, which not only authorizes but requires others to intervene and protect civilians on humanitarian grounds.

The History 

There has been a long-lasting debate over humanitarian intervention and state sovereignty. Before the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, there was a lack of international consensus and well-recognized codes of conduct. 

During the 1990s, the world witnessed two failures of the international community to protect innocent lives. In 1994, about 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists. The genocide targeted the minority Tutsi community, killing about 70% of Rwanda’s Tutsi population. Even though the United Nations was aware of the genocide the Rwandan government was planning, and had troops present in the country, they failed to act. The international community failed again to prevent a brutal massacre in 1995. During the Bosnian War, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb Army after the United Nations and others failed to protect them in UN “safe areas” in the town of Srebrenica. The genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica showed the world its failure to protect people and the devastating consequence of non-intervention. In the wake of these atrocities, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), established by the Canadian government, released a report called “The Responsibility to Protect” in 2001.

How It Works

The Responsibility to Protect includes three elements of international responsibility: the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react, and the responsibility to rebuild. According to R2P, prevention is the single most important dimension. States have an obligation to intervene through peaceful means such as mediation and economic sanctions to protect civilians from atrocity crimes. 

The R2P also authorizes the use of military force if peaceful means are inadequate. Six strict criteria must be met to do so. First, the just cause threshold states that there must be an occurrence or imminent likelihood of a large scale loss of life or “ethnic cleansing.” Second, the intention has to be primarily humanitarian. Third, this must be the last resort. Prevention measures should be exhausted before any military intervention. Fourth, it has to be carried out in proportional means. Fifth, there must be a reasonable chance of success to prevent suffering. Lastly, it has to be carried out through the right authority, namely the Security Council.

At the 2005 World Summit, all member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Since 2009, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has published annual reports outlining a strategy to implement R2P based on three pillars: states’ primary responsibility to protect their own population from atrocity crimes; the collective responsibility of the international community to assist; and the international responsibility to protect in accordance with the UN Charter.

However, the Responsibility to Protect has its limitations. Since the power to authorize military action lies with the UN Security Council, political issues that plague the Council can affect decisions about when to intervene. R2P has also been criticized as a form of neo-imperialism used by stronger states to justify exploiting internal conflicts of other states to serve their own self-interests. Governments with histories of serious human rights violations often whitewash their crimes by sending troops to other countries.

Why Care?

Despite its limitations, the Responsibility to Protect provided a well-recognized and clear framework for humanitarian intervention. It sets a new norm for humanitarian intervention by shifting the debate from “the right to intervene” to “the responsibility to protect.” Its formation also shows us evolving concepts such as sovereignty in relation to human rights. According to R2P, sovereignty is conditional rather than absolute. It not only indicates a state’s control over its populations but also implies its responsibility to protect them. Engaging in the dialogue of the R2P can help us recognize our collective responsibility as global citizens and advocate for a more responsive international community.

Think Further

  1. How do we measure the effectiveness of R2P since its success depends on something that doesn’t happen (a genocide, a war crime)?
  2. What do you think of the R2P criticism that it’s a form of neo-imperialism?
  3. Do you think the use of military force should be included in the R2P doctrine? Why or why not?


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Learn More

  1. The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The original R2P doctrine,
  2. United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect,
  3. Should the UN Support the R2P Doctrine?
  4. Evans, Gareth. The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All. (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, September 2008)
  5. Kuperman, A. (2008). The Moral Hazard of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans. International Studies Quarterly, 52/I, 49-80