The Responsibility to Protect

5 March, 2009

In September 2005, at the end of the World Summit held in New York for the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, the attending Heads of States endorsed the concept of a responsibility to protect (R2P) populations from mass violence and atrocities. Paragraph 138 of the General Assembly’s “Outcome Document” thus recognizes the responsibility of an individual state “to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” It further states that this responsibility “entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means.” Paragraph 139 then goes on to ascertain the international community’s own responsibility to help and take collective action where and when “national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations” (UNGA, 2005: para. 138-139).

A- The original coining of the concept

The responsibility to protect demanded the establishment of a link between the concept of sovereignty and the idea of responsibility. That link was first emphasized by Francis M. Deng – the then Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Internally Displaced Persons – in his work related to the fate of vulnerable groups like displaced populations and refugees (Deng, 1995). For Deng and his colleague, Roberta Cohen (Cohen and Deng, 1996), the crux of the protection’s conundrum was to determine how to move beyond the obstruction of national authorities rebuffing international assistance and offers of aid in situations where the state is unable (or unwilling) to fulfill its own responsibility. The solution was to move beyond sovereignty “as control” toward a concept of sovereignty “as responsibility”. Once done, this re-conceptualization of sovereignty opened the door to a two-tiered framework for protection: the first acknowledging that the genuine function and primary responsibility of protection lay with the sovereign government; the second distinguishing a derived responsibility for assistance and protection resting with the international community.

The real breakthrough, though, came when the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS, 2001) introduced the concept of sovereignty “as responsibility” in relation to “avoidable catastrophe”, especially mass violence and atrocities. In the wake of the tension created by the NATO intervention in Kosovo and in response to Kofi Annan’s report on the work of the organization challenging member states to resolve the contradiction between sovereignty and human rights (Annan, 1999: para. 37), Canada’s Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, and Canadian Foreign Affairs officials advocated the creation of an international commission on humanitarian intervention. The purpose was to reconciliate state sovereignty with the exceptional use of armed force to protect population that are threatened with violent acts.

Released in December 2001, the ICISS report turned upside-down the way we considered both sovereignty and the protection of populations against serious harm. Starting from the point of view of those populations needing protection, instead of those states willing to intervene, the report identified six relevant decision-making criteria that had to be transparently fulfilled before a forcible “reaction” could be considered: Just cause (a serious and irreparable harm or imminent likelihood of harm to human beings); Right authority (Security Council authorization should in all cases be sought, but alternative avenues can be pursued); Right intention (the primary purpose must be to halt or avert human suffering); Last resort (an intervention can only be justified when every non-military option has been explored); Proportional means (the intervention should aim for the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection goal); Reasonable prospects (the consequences of action should not be worse than the consequences of inaction).

B- Toward a “lite” concept of R2P

At first (i.e., after the 9/11 shock and the subsequent unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003), the main normative efforts to define effective criteria dominated debates. These were interpreted, in the report “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility” by the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (HLP), as a new “emerging norm” of “last resort” for the collective international responsibility to protect violence-menaced populations (HLP, 2004: para. 204). Furthermore, the Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself insisted in his report on implementing the Millennium Declaration that member states should stop paying “only lip service” to human rights and ought to accept their common responsibility of granting protection and on the basis of these distinct criteria “act on it” (Annan, 2005: para. 135).

Both these documents and the concept of R2P were at the heart of the six month period of contentious discussions before the September 2005 World Summit. Although the rhetoric is fashionable and in touch with the current humanitarian state of mind, the international community has then been unforthcoming to fully endorse the concept (Bellamy, 2006). Many states, especially in the so-called global south, still perceived it as a classical sign of the eagerness of dominant states to interfere in the name of humanity, but only when and where they see fit. Others, notably some permanent members of the Security Council, resisted the idea of achieving a genuine consensus on a set of criteria on the use of force for protection. They were reluctant to accept the possibility of being constrained to act. The net result of those contentions has been to alleviate the key tenets of the concept and to substitute the (largely empty) idea of “preparedness” to the (largely rhetorical) obligation to react contained in the initial ICISS report.

C- Open questions

Although the concept has since been interpreted as potentially the “most important normative advance in relation to the threat of mass atrocities since the 1948 adoption of the Genocide Convention” (Albright and Cohen, 2008: 98), it nevertheless left many questions unanswered. Hence, the concept still lacks any clear substance (Stoll, 2008), since it does not tell us what kind of obligations is implied (Tan, 2006), who has the legitimate authority to determine that action is required (Thibault, 2007) or even which agent should be assigned the responsibility to protect (Pattison, 2008)? Apart from the criteria issue that is unlikely to offer any true solution (Bellamy, 2008), the principal challenge is to translate the concept “from words into deeds” (Ki-moon, 2007). This implies finding means to make the concept operational in a practical and effective way, without for instance doing more harm.

D- Bibliography

ALBRIGHT, Madeleine K. and William S. COHEN, 2008, Preventing Genocide. A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers, Genocide Prevention Task Force, Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, The American Academy of Diplomacy and the Endowment of the United States Institute of Peace.

ANNAN, Kofi, 2005, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All, A/59/2005, March 21.

ANNAN. Kofi, 1999, Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization, A/55/1, August 31.

BELLAMY, Alex, 2008, “The Responsibility to Protect and the Problem of Military Intervention”, International Affairs, 84, 4: 615-639.

BELLAMY, Alex J., 2006, “Wither the Responsibility to Protect? Humanitarian Intervention and the 2005 World Summit”, Ethics and International Affairs, 20, 2: 143-169.

COHEN, Roberta and Francis M. DENG, 1996, “Normative Framework of Sovereignty”, in DENG, Francis M., Sadikiel KIMARO, Terrence LYONS, Donald ROTHCHILD and I. William ZARTMAN, 1996, Sovereignty as Responsibility. Conflict Management in Africa, Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, pp. 1-33.

DENG, Francis M., 1995, “Frontiers of Sovereignty: A Framework of Protection, Assistance, and Development for the Internally Displaced”, Leiden Journal of International Law, 8, 2: 249-286.

HLP, 2004, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A/59/565, December 2.

ICISS, 2001, The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.

KI-MOON, Ban, 2007, “Annual Address to the General Assembly”, SG/SM/11182, September 25.

PATTISON, James, 2008, “Whose Responsibility to Protect? The Duties of Humanitarian Intervention”, Journal of Military Ethics, 7, 4: 262-283.

STOLL, Tobias, 2008, “Responsibility, Sovereignty and Cooperation – Reflections on the ‘Responsibility to Protect’”, in KÖNIG, Doris, Peter-Tobias STOLL, Volka RÖBER and Nele MATZ-LÜCK (eds.), International Law Today: New Challenges and the Need for Reform?, Berlin: Springer, pp. 1-16.

TAN, Kok-Chor, 2006, “The Duty to Protect”, in NARDIN, Terry and Melissa S. WILLIAMS (eds.), Humanitarian Intervention, New York: New York University Press, pp. 84-116.

THIBAULT, Jean-François, 2007, “La responsabilité de protéger et le problème de l’autorité appropriée” in COULON, Jocelyn (ed.), Guide du maintien de la paix 2008, Montréal: Athéna/Cepes, pp. 103-117.

UNGA, 2005, “Summit Outcome”, A/60/L.1, September 20.

Cite this item

Thibault Jean-François, The Responsibility to Protect , Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 5 March, 2009, accessed 16/07/2019,, ISSN 1961-9898