Responsibility To Protect at Ten

Image by Jayel Aheram

Image by Jayel Aheram

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine was agreed by UN member states in the 2005 World Outcome document. As we near the tenth anniversary of its adoption, how successful has it been?

R2P replaces humanitarian intervention as a way in which the UN has justified state intervention. Implementation of R2P has come in 3 forms: i) institutional, ii) cases and application, and iii) international norms.

(i) Institutional refers to the way in which R2P has been driven by the UN, states, NGOs and regional actors resulting in the establishment of new institutional structures such as the creation of a Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on R2P.
(ii) Cases and application refers to R2P’s use in countries such as Kenya in 2008, and Libya in 2011.
(iii) International norms refers to how R2P has become a new institutional norm, and is also linked to how it has been implemented culturally, and particularly wider public awareness of it.

A further dimension in which R2P’s implementation ought to be analysed is through the three pillars. I will argue that the success of R2P’s implementation varies depending on the element of R2P in question. It also seems evident that R2P’s implementation is undergoing transition.

Other points to consider regarding R2P’s implementation

i) Looking at the number of resolutions in which R2P features is a poor guide to assessing its implementation.

ii) One ought not write off R2P based on operational or military failures in some of the instances in which R2P has been used; for example, R2P should not be judged solely on the basis of the supposed civilian deaths in Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Pillar one of R2P (responsibility to prevent) is the protection responsibilities that the state has towards its own citizens. This evolves from already existing laws concerning the conduct of states. If this pillar were fully implemented and adhered to by states, then the other pillars would cease to be necessary. Although there seems to be a growing awareness on the part of states in terms of their responsibilities regarding their own citizens, recent examples of atrocities such as those committed by the Anti-Balaka militia in the current Central African Republic conflict point to a limitation to this pillar. States are said to have responsibility over their citizens, but what about non-state actors, such as rebel groups who commit atrocities?

This is where the other pillars set in, or when governments should request international assistance, as is currently the case with the Iraqi government requesting assistance in their operations to curtail ISIS, which has committed atrocities against those of the Shi’ite branch of Islam and other religious minorities such as the Yazidi Kurds. Implementing R2P over the long term and making states aware of their responsibilities will require continued efforts. Raising global public awareness of R2P might go some way to ensuring that states become aware of their pillar one responsibilities.

Pillar two (responsibility to rebuild) involves the commitment of the international community to assist states in meeting their pillar one responsibilities. This includes providing material resources and ensuring coordination between the state in question, the UN system, regional, and other actors.[1] The current assistance being provided to Iraq in the fight against ISIS arguably falls within the pillar 2 criteria.

Pillar three (responsibility to act) is the most controversial aspect of the R2P doctrine. It is not restricted to military means; economic, diplomatic and political methods may also be used. The operations of the various pillars should not be thought of as acting in complete isolation from one another. For example the 2007-2008 Kenyan crisis indicates how pillar 2 and 3 diplomatic pressures can ensure that states are made aware of their pillar 1 responsibilities.

The first explicit reference to R2P in a UNSCR was in Resolution 1970 concerning the 2011 conflict in Libya. The resolution clearly reiterates pillar one of R2P when it restates “the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population”.[2] Resolution 1973 extended R2P into the realm of pillar 3 when it committed the international community to implement an NFZ (no-fly zone) above Libya. The fact that NATO states went further than this resolution does not remove the fact that R2P was used for the first time in a Chapter VII context.[3]

R2P’s implementation into the international structure has been fairly straightforward. A Global Centre for R2P has been established which monitors international crises and makes recommendations to the UN and governments on the applicability of R2P. Additionally, the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Adviser on R2P to oversee its implementation. There has also been the creation of a new academic journal Global Responsibility to Protect. 

As I have mentioned, R2P seems to have been implemented quite successfully institutionally with the establishment of new organisations and the fact that R2P is now an option that the UNSC can consider in responding to crises. In terms of its status as being an international norm, the process is incomplete, although it has been partially successful given the large number of states that support it. In terms of its implementation in real cases, R2P was clearly successful in the case of Libya.

It is hard to draw conclusions about R2P’s true impact because of uncertainty regarding the ‘behind the scenes effect’, meaning it is difficult to determine at this point the extent to which R2P has actually affected the decisions of diplomats. The reality is that R2P has huge potential as a doctrine of decision-making in international relations. However, its future ultimately hinges on China’s rejection of its legitimacy as an international criterion of policy making. Although we are in R2P’s early stages, we can see that it is being implemented successfully within the UN framework, and it may well become the principal motivation for action in international relations over the next decade.

Luke Charters-Reid is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Mansfield College, Oxford.

Image courtesy of Jayel Aheram




[1] United Nations (2009), Implementing Responsibility to Protect, Paragraph 11b

[2] United Nations (2011), Resolution 1970, p.1

[3] Luck, E. (2011) [Former Special Advisor to the UN S-G on R2P] ‘The Responsibility to Protect: The First Decade’ in Global Responsibility to Protect 3 (2011), pp. 387–399


About Luke Charters-Reid

Luke is reading Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Oxford. His politics interests include humanitarian interventions, the foreign policy of the EU, and monetary policy.

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