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?
No, in fact the conceptual and operational development of the responsibility to protect has multiple origins as well as contributions by Member States from the global South to its conceptual and operational development.
The theoretical basis of the responsibility to protect emanated from the scholarship of Francis Deng, former Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and former Permanent Representative of South Sudan to the United Nations. Deng formulated the notion of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ in 1996, which reframed State sovereignty from a rights-based application to one of responsibility.
The evolution of thinking and practice on these matters was also reflected in the development of the Organization of African Unity’s peace and security architecture. In 2000, five years before the 2005 World Summit endorsed the responsibility to protect, the Constitutive Act of the African Union provided, in article 4(h) for “the rights of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect to grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. For this reason, Africa is often credited with playing a pioneering role in generating momentum for the development and advancement of the responsibility to protect.
Building upon these developments, Canada led an effort to further reflect on international responsibilities for the prevention of atrocity crimes which crystalized on the convening, of the International Commission on Intervention and States Sovereignty (ICIS) in 2001. Composed by 12 eminent personalities from Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe, this Commission coined the term “responsibility to protect” to allude to the parallel responsibilities to prevent, to react and to rebuild. The Commission highlighted the primary importance of prevention and encouraged States to fully advance it by meeting their core protection responsibilities.
Is the responsibility to protect a foreign policy issue?
The responsibility to protect constitutes both a domestic and foreign policy issue. It is important to make a distinction between elements connected to the conceptual development and building political consensus on the responsibility to protect principle, on the one hand, and its full operationalization, on the other. The former relates to political dialogue in a number of regional and international inter-governmental fora, including the United Nations General Assembly – which by definition corresponds to the realm of States’ foreign policy. In the case of operationalization, however, there is logically a foreign policy dimension, but the prioritization of prevention makes the responsibility to protect, first and foremost, a domestic policy issue.
History shows that no State is entirely immune to the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Therefore, every State has a responsibility to manage or mitigate challenges associated with such risks. We know from past experience that genocide and other atrocity crimes do not occur without warning but are the result of a process. There is a multitude of factors associated with a heightened risk of atrocity crimes, including discrimination, hate speech, incitement to violence and the dehumanization of “the other”. The Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes lists a series of risk factors and indicators that inform risk assessment and early warning efforts. Today, we are seeing increasing exclusionary sentiment, often expressed through hate speech, targeting vulnerable minority groups and refugees in many countries in all regions of the world, including in the global North.
Candid self-refection, constructive dialogue among groups and institutions, domestically and internationally, and periodic national risk assessment are needed in both fragile and seemingly healthy societies in all regions of the world.
Is the responsibility to protect about military intervention?
No, it is only in the most extreme situations, when Member States are manifestly failing to protect their populations from atrocity crimes that the international community has a responsibility to respond collectively to the most serious human rights violations and humanitarian law in a timely and decisive manner, on a case-by-case basis, and always in full accordance with the UN Charter.
Under the third pillar of the responsibility to protect, when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community can respond with a range of tools available to the United Nations and its partners. These can include peaceful measures under Chapter VI, and coercive measures such as sanctions under Chapter VII. It can also include collaboration with regional and sub-regional arrangements under Chapter VIII.
The primary aim must always be prevention; to respond early and effectively in non-coercive ways and thereby reduce the risk of deterioration that may make the use of force necessary if the commission of the four crimes and violations is to be prevented. However, should manifest failure to protect require the adoption of more robust measures, they would need to be taken in full accordance with the United Nations Charter.
The misconception that the responsibility to protect is about military intervention has been connected to the authorization of the use of force by the Security Council in Libya in 2011, under Resolution 1973 and in light of specific warning signs the Security Council considered in its deliberations. The consequences of that authorization in terms of the responsibility to protect continue being debated, especially whether the implementation respected the parameters of the resolution mandate. In practice, States only have limited appetite for military intervention. While the responsibility to protect has been labelled by some as a reason for powerful States to intervene in the affairs of those perceived to be weak, in reality there are very few cases of military intervention in recent years, even in the most extreme cases. The situations in Syria and Myanmar stand as tragic examples of an international community unable to take collective action representing precisely what the commitment to the 2005 World Summit document was intended to prevent. Irrespective of this, disagreements about the past must not stand in the way of the international community’s commitment and determination to protect populations in the present. Building upon past experiences however, the international community should learn from past experiences and ensure that existing and legitimate concerns are taken into account in the consideration and determination of future action. Initiatives aimed at distilling the lessons of past cases and improving the operationalization of the principle, including the “Responsibility while Protecting” initiative presented by Brazil following the Libyan case, constitute useful pathways for continuing this important dialogue.
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:
1) ENHANCE EFFORTS TO PREVENT
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.
2) PROMOTE JUSTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY
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.
3) WORK TOGETHER TO PROTECT
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.