Ten years on, ‘responsibility to protect’ must be more than words – UN officials

Peacekeepers of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMISS) man a guard post overlooking a POC (Protection of Civilians) site in Juba. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

8 September 2015 – Citing numerous crises around the world, including in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, United Nations officials today stressed that the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ endorsed by leaders a decade ago must be translated into action and more done to provide real protection for people in dire need.

“Ten years ago, world leaders transformed expectations about the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the General Assembly’s informal dialogue on the subject. “Today, on its 10th anniversary, I urgently call on governments and UN entities – especially the Security Council – to move from understanding to action.”

The principle of the responsibility to protect, which was adopted at the 2005 World Summit and is commonly referred to as R2P, holds States responsible for protecting their own populations from war crimes and crimes against humanity, and requires the international community to step in if this obligation is not met.

Mr. Ban noted that R2P was not only a question of law but “a matter of common humanity.” He used the occasion to call on Member States to create political space to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes; for stronger connections between early warning and early action; and for courage in publicly confronting and addressing signs of risk.

Mr. Ban also recalled the responsibilities of the Security Council, noting that the 15-member body is “the only body empowered under international law to authorize military action to save lives when all else fails.”

“We must do all that we can to act early, prevent atrocity crimes and support States in protecting their citizens,” he added.

Speaking on behalf of General Assembly President Sam Kutesa, Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson of Iceland told the meeting that the anniversary is an opportunity to reaffirm a collective responsibility to protect populations from war crimes and other crimes against humanity.

“A decade after the World Summit, the principle of responsibility to protect continues to receive recognition by Member States, regional mechanisms and other stakeholders,” he said, emphasising that “continued engagement is required for its wider acceptance and implementation, in accordance with international law.”

Mr. Gunnarsson added that the primary responsibility to protect lies with State authorities, and regional and international efforts should focus on supporting national capacities in detecting and preventing crimes against humanity and war crimes.

He noted that while the scale of such crimes has gradually decline, the international community continues to witness situations around the world, especially by non-State groups and actors, that constitute some of these crimes against humanity.

“The heinous atrocities and terrorist attacks by groups such as ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and Al Shabaab are unacceptable, and we must redouble our efforts to stop them,” he said.

At a press conference later in the day, the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said that the Secretary-General’s remarks to the General Assembly constituted “a powerful call to action,” and outlined a way forward for the international community to combat atrocity crimes.

Jennifer Welsh, the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, recalled that the principle adopted in 2005 arose out of the failure to protect the populations of Rwanda and Srebrenica from crimes against humanity and war crimes.

“The principle is, at its core, a political commitment but is based on pre-existing legal obligations to protect populations from these crimes, to never allow them again,” she said.

She also highlighted the report of the Secretary-General, “A vital and enduring commitment: implementing the responsibility to protect,” noting there was an ambitious agenda that lay ahead.

“We know that in certain cases when there is concerted action, we can make a difference in addressing these kinds of situations,” she said. “And when we see in the news, on a daily basis, stark reminders of the consequences of either inaction or half-hearted action, it is imperative for the Secretary-General’s call to action in this report to be heeded.”


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

UN World Summit adopts landmark outcome document on raft of crucial issues

Related Stories


More videos »


In-depth Interviews