December 2016, No. 4 Vol. LIII, Human Rights


At the 2005 World Summit, all Heads of State and Government affirmed the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The responsibility to protect (commonly referred to as ‘RtoP’) rests upon three pillars of equal standing: the responsibility of each State to protect its populations (pillar I); the responsibility of the international community to assist States in protecting their populations (pillar II); and the responsibility of the international community to protect when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations (pillar III). The adoption of the principle in 2005 constituted a solemn commitment, which included much expectation of a future free of these crimes.

Given the current range and intensity of crises around the world, many feel compelled to say that RtoP has failed. At the same time, important advances in the development of the principle and in the design of practical measures for its full implementation provide a more optimistic picture. Identifying next steps in the implementation of the responsibility to protect requires taking both factors into account.


It is unquestionable that despite the progress made, we remain far from the objective envisaged in 2005. Deeply worrying developments over the last few years threaten to widen the gap between the commitment expressed by Heads of State and Government and the daily reality confronted by populations around the world.

There is a range of situations today where populations are at risk of the RtoP crimes, or where such crimes are ongoing. These crises are taking place against a backdrop of retreating internationalism, diminishing respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, political disunity in key decision-making bodies such as the Security Council, and a level of defeatism about promoting ambitious agendas like protection.

We have been witnessing an alarming disregard for fundamental tenets of international law. In many of the armed conflicts that have ignited in recent years, parties to the conflict are consciously violating international humanitarian law; we are seeing widespread and flagrant attacks on protected civilian sites, such as hospitals and schools, as well as on protected persons, including humanitarian and health-care workers.

The besieging of civilian communities in Syria and the denial of humanitarian relief are particularly troubling, as they cause unimaginable suffering. In our modern age, civilians in conflict zones should not have to confront the threat of starvation or die for want of basic medical assistance. Journalists and human rights defenders also continue to be targeted in alarming numbers.

It is a sobering fact that despite the emergence of brutal, non-state armed groups, the most serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, which could amount to atrocity crimes, are still committed by the armed forces and auxiliary militia of States. Likewise, Governments are failing to hold perpetrators of atrocity crimes accountable for their actions. At the international level, some States parties to the Rome Statute, by which the International Criminal Court was established, are not cooperating with the Court, or even taking steps to withdraw from the Statute to avoid investigation and prosecution of atrocity crimes. The Security Council is increasingly reluctant to refer situations to the Court, and some political leaders are clearly seeking immunity from legal accountability.


Any honest assessment requires us to face the grim reality described above. At the same time, we must also consider other elements that point in a positive direction. Much has been achieved since 2005.

First, it is clear from our engagement with Member States, and from the annual informal dialogues in the General Assembly on the responsibility to protect, that there is consensus on many core elements of the principle. There is agreement that prevention is at the core of RtoP; that efforts to assist States in fulfilling their protection responsibilities should respect the principle of national ownership; that any collective international action should employ the full range of diplomatic, political and humanitarian measures; and that military force should be considered only as a measure of last resort.

Second, all the key intergovernmental bodies of the United Nations have deliberated on and referred to the responsibility to protect, and in some cases passed both thematic and country-specific resolutions related to the principle. The Security Council has referred to RtoP in more than 50 resolutions and presidential statements. The Human Rights Council has referenced the principle in a number of resolutions, most recently the 30 September 2016 resolution on transitional justice.1 Moreover, the Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes developed by the Office of the Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect has been issued as an official United Nations document,2 disseminated and used both within and beyond the Organization, assisting the tasks of early warning and early action.

And third, we have seen the development of regional and global networks of focal points on the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide and atrocity crimes over the past decade, which can support the development of the national and regional architecture needed to implement this principle and encourage the sharing of good practices and expertise. There are cross-regional Groups of Friends of RtoP in New York and Geneva with more than 50 members. There are also important initiatives underway to raise awareness among legislators and parliamentarians about the responsibility to protect. This is crucial work that must be supported.

Next steps

The progress made of course needs to be sustained, and further efforts are required to overcome points of contention. On the conceptual side, for example, Member States have requested further clarification on the basis for taking collective action under the third pillar of RtoP, particularly for considering the authorization of military force by the Security Council when States manifestly fail to protect their populations.

Also, although Member States have repeatedly emphasized their support for the prevention of atrocity crimes, this has not been sufficiently translated into concrete support for preventive strategies. This requires honest assessments of national vulnerabilities. The United Nations has always insisted that no State or region can consider itself immune to the risk of atrocity crimes and that all States should start by focusing on their responsibilities outlined in pillar I. The prevention of atrocity crimes must start at home. Sustainable implementation requires that various branches of government, along with civil society and private sector actors, work together to craft specific policies and a robust culture of prevention. Internally, each society must look at its own risk factors and sources of resilience, and respond in the tailored ways that make most sense in each context. Existing processes, such as the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, can be used to encourage States to assess longer-term atrocity risks and identify measures to mitigate them. This, of course, requires moving the responsibility to protect beyond diplomatic chambers in New York, Geneva and regional centres into the mechanics of national policymaking. The United Nations will continue to support all efforts aimed at strengthening resilience to atrocity crimes through preventive action. The new Secretary-General has made a clear commitment to place prevention at the heart of his agenda.

The main obstacle, however, remains the strong political interests on the part of powerful States that work against early action to address situations in which populations are at risk. This was clearly the case as the crisis mounted in Syria during the summer of 2011, and has continued to block decisive action as the civil war featured more frequent and brutal instances of atrocity crimes. We have seen it operate more recently in other situations, including in Yemen.

We need to find ways of expanding the political base within the Security Council for ‘timely and decisive’ collective action. One place to start is to seek the commitment by Council Members that they will not block any action aimed at addressing the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. There are specific initiatives in place at the moment that seek such commitment, and I fully endorse them. We also need to learn how to prevent atrocities in the absence of unity in the Council.

At times, blockages at the global political level open opportunities for other actors, especially at the national, subregional, and regional levels, to seize the initiative. This has certainly been true in the case of the massive and coordinated efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrians by the United Nations, Member States and civil society actors working together.


The past decade has shown us that collective and coordinated action can make a difference. The next period of implementation of RtoP must continue to build on the concrete advances that have been made—and to learn the lessons from past efforts to protect. This redoubling of our collective commitment will ensure that the principle continues to inspire and to catalyse action, and deliver more effective protection for all populations.


1    A/HRC/RES/33/19.

2    A/70/741–S/2016/71.