Why is the responsibility to protect still relevant today?

Video statement by the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect on the occasion of the 15th anniversary

2020 marks fifteen years since all Heads of State and Government unanimously adopted the responsibility to protect at the United Nations World Summit in 2005. The adoption of the principle was a milestone in international efforts to ensure that past failures of collective action, represented by the failure to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, would never be repeated.

Fifteen years later, the task of building peace, prioritizing prevention, and protecting populations is no less urgent and important. Atrocity crimes continue to be committed, with far reaching and long-lasting consequences for societies and future generations. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of the responsibility to protect as vulnerable populations around the world are exposed to heightened risks of serious human rights violations and atrocity crimes. Increased intolerance, hate speech and discrimination show that States need to urgently take measures to protect their populations, including the most vulnerable and marginalized. As we strive to protect people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, there is a stronger need than ever before for us to stay true to the ideals and purposes of the United Nations. Preventing atrocity crimes is at the core of this.

The 15th anniversary of the responsibility to protect provides a significant opportunity for the international community to renew and deepen its commitment to the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleaning and crimes against humanity and to intensify all efforts to protect populations from such crimes and violations, as well as their incitement.

What are some of the main misconceptions of the responsibility to protect?

With its adoption, the responsibility to protect generated great attention and hope as a key tool of atrocity prevention and protection. The imperative was clear; do more to protect people and do so as a united international community. Yet, there are a number of concerns that persist regarding the principle. Many arise from how its operationalization in response to specific country situations in the last fifteen years is interpreted. That is why there is a need to dispel misconceptions and mistrust about the purpose of the responsibility to protect.

Below are three of the most pervasive misconceptions about the principle:

Is the responsibility to protect a Western concept?
Is the responsibility to protect a foreign policy issue?
Is the responsibility to protect about military intervention?

Priorities for the future

UN Secretary-General's video message for the 15th anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect

In light of the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the responsibility to protect, the Special Adviser calls on individual States to meet their obligations to protect and for the international community to deepen its collective commitment to prevent and end atrocity crimes. Diplomatic solutions must be found to address the risk of the commission of such crimes in order to save lives. Further operationalizing the principle requires advancing these key priorities:


The prevention of atrocity crimes is at the heart of the responsibility to protect and the overall prevention agenda of the Secretary-General. Early prevention requires prioritization of inclusiveness and constructive management of diversity. National policies and norms must pay respect to difference. This requires laws and institutions designed to promote equality between individuals and groups and protect them against discrimination, hate speech and incitement to violence while protecting freedom of expression. Constitutional and legislative protections for human rights and the rights of groups are the principal bulwarks against discrimination. The protection should be overseen effectively by independent judiciaries and national human rights institutions, including ombudspersons, with vibrant civil societies capable of holding States accountable.


The four crimes and violations need to be embodied in national legislation, so that genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as well as their incitement, are criminalized under domestic legislation. All segments of society need to be afforded equal access to justice and to judicial redress of violations of their fundamental rights, as part of an overall effort to strengthen the rule of law. This is not only for the sake of justice, but to prevent potential future crimes, as impunity for past violations constitutes an atrocity risk factor in itself. The international community has a legal and moral duty to help those in need and provide legal avenues for their safety. States should become parties to the relevant international instruments on human rights, international humanitarian law and refugee law, as well as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Member States should also ensure that atrocity crimes and their incitement are criminalized in domestic law.


The commitment of the international community and strengthened cooperation is imperative for successful prevention of atrocity crimes. It is time for the international community to come together to find diplomatic solutions to ongoing problems and to protect populations from atrocity crimes. At the United Nations, inter-governmental organs need to work as one to address the risk and end the commission of atrocity crimes, reach settlements that bring justice and accountability to vulnerable and disenfranchised populations, address long-term grievances and structural deficits that can limit protection and curtail human rights, and promote sustainable development that leaves no one behind. Regional and sub-regional organizations should work in the same direction and receive all possible support to this effect.

Successful implementation of the responsibility to protect requires cooperation across all levels. For that purpose, dialogue and cooperation among civil society, national and regional actors must be prioritized. The responsibility to protect must extend beyond the United Nations to regional and national contexts, but also beyond governments to civil society and key domestic stakeholders. Experience has shown that prevention and response are most effective when the United Nations works in tandem with its regional, national and local partners. Strengthening that relationship to maximize opportunities for prevention and protection remains a critically important aspect of the implementation strategy.

Read more about the vital role that Member States, the United Nations system, regional and subregional organizations and their civil society partners all play in the operationalization of the responsibility to protect here.