Responsibility to Protect — and its failures

Published: August 9, 2019
The writer is a development anthropologist. He can be reached at

The writer is a development anthropologist. He can be reached at

Armed conflict and mass atrocities continue to cause tens of thousands of deaths each year and adversely impact the lives of millions of innocent civilians. The international community has not yet been able to come up with an effective mechanism to prevent large-scale massacres and atrocities against ordinary citizens.

The horrors of the two World Wars, the genocidal violence carried out by authoritarian regimes in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Indonesia, and the ethnic violence unleashed in Rwanda and Yugoslavia eventually led the international community to articulate the notion of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P.

The R2P doctrine obligates individual states and the international community to protect populations from mass atrocities. It is based on the idea that sovereignty is not a privilege, but a responsibility instead. It was universally endorsed at the 2005 World Summit, and has now become a part of the international vocabulary in discussing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

R2P has three basic pillars. Pillar 1 entrusts states with the responsibility to protect their own citizens against atrocities. Pillar 2 requires the wider international community to encourage and assist individual states in meeting their responsibility to protect their citizens. If a state is failing to protect its populations, Pillar 3 requires the international community to take appropriate collective action, according to the UN Charter, to protect ordinary people from mass atrocities.

While the three pillars of R2P seem to provide a comprehensive framework for preventing atrocities, the implementation of these pillars remains problematic. The inherent tensions between its pillars can lead to international inaction. Consider, for instance, the case of Syria, where Russia and China claim that they are furthering pillar 2 of the R2P doctrine by enabling the Syrian regime to provide protection to its citizens. Despite the rest of the international community pointing out the Assad regime’s atrocities against its own citizens, they remain reluctant to do much about it.

In 2011, the UN Resolution 173 evoked the language of R2P to allow UN members states to intervene and protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attacks in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Members of the Nato-led coalition that intervened in Libya, however, did not implement R2P protocols, as their mission drifted to toppling the Ghaddafi regime, after which they did not take adequate steps to prevent the subsequent chaos within the country, and atrocities against ordinary citizens.

Pessimistic assessments of the R2P vision see it being used to effectively normalise extreme violence through the very effort to contain it. Allowing state legitimacy to be measured by effectiveness in providing security enabled Sri Lankan PM Rajapaksa to quash the Tamil Tigers, in the name of eradicating terrorists, despite the immense humanitarian toll of his military operation.

Atrocity-focused R2P, like the “Just War” criteria, can even become an enabler of war as it gives the false impression that war can be humanised and its worst excesses prevented. War is, after all, an inherently destructive activity, whether rules of war are followed, or not. An atrocity-based focus can create a false distinction between war and war crimes, rendering invisible harm which takes place within the laws of war.

A narrow focus on atrocities also does not hold its enablers accountable, be it arms sellers or powerful states that prop up illegitimate regimes to further their own geostrategic calculus. Moreover, the atrocities-only focus of the R2P doctrine can also direct attention away from the non-conflict situations in which atrocity crimes take place or the many contexts in which human suffering exists without atrocities.

Despite the articulation of the R2P doctrine, its operationalisation remains problematic and needs revision to enhance human security around the world.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2019.

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