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Discussion Papers Series

From Commitment to Action:
The Enduring Importance of the Responsibility to Protect

by Mr. Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide

and Dr. Jennifer Welsh
, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect


Despite repeated calls to “never again” allow the most terrible forms of persecution and violence to occur, the international community has struggled to systematically prevent and halt genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The responsibility to protect was created to fill this gap between rhetoric and action. The principle embodies a solemn political commitment, made at the highest level by all Heads of State and Government at the 2005 World Summit, to uphold pre-existing legal obligations, strive for more timely and decisive action and improve the protection provided to vulnerable populations.

Ten years from its formal adoption, the responsibility to protect is now more relevant and important than ever. The principle has helped to generate a political consensus amongst Member States on how to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes (1). It has inspired a rapidly growing body of academic and policy literature that is improving our understanding of how to anticipate and mitigate the risks associated with atrocity crimes. Most importantly, the principle has led to the development of new institutional capacity and spurred successful engagement in cases like Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya and Kyrgyzstan.

The breadth and depth of the responsibility to protect’s impact is also clear in the decisions and deliberations of international institutions. The Security Council has adopted more than thirty resolutions and presidential statements that refer to the principle, including recent resolutions that explicitly welcome the work of our Office (2). The General Assembly has held a formal debate and convened seven annual informal interactive dialogues on the subject. The Human Rights Council has adopted thirteen resolutions that feature the responsibility to protect. At the regional level, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has adopted a resolution on strengthening the responsibility to protect in Africa (3) and the European Parliament has recommended full implementation of the principle by the European Union (4). In short, Member States and regional organizations are reaffirming the principle with increasing frequency and specificity.

As Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon has noted, the responsibility to protect “offers an alternative to indifference and fatalism” and represents a “milestone in transforming international concern about people facing mortal danger into meaningful response" (5). In this article, we reflect on the elements of the responsibility to protect that have shaped its significant contribution to advancing protection from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Mindful of current crises and the many people that remain at elevated risk of atrocity crimes, we then highlight the urgent need to accelerate implementation of the principle and outline an ambitious but achievable agenda for the decade ahead.

A Vital Principle

At the 2005 World Summit, Member States formally recognized the political and moral imperative to prevent and halt atrocity crimes. They affirmed their primary responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and accepted a collective responsibility to assist each other in fulfilling this responsibility (6). They also declared their preparedness to take timely and decisive action, in accordance with the United Nations Charter and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, when national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations (7).

This formulation of the responsibility to protect has proven farsighted for four reasons. First, it employs a narrow scope. Limiting the principle to the most serious international crimes has helped to ensure that the responsibility to protect remains squarely focused on closing the distance between specific obligations under international law and the reality faced by populations at risk.

Second, the 2005 World Summit Outcome clarifies who bears the responsibility to protect. It establishes that the primary responsibility to protect falls upon national authorities, and that this responsibility also entails prevention. But it also stipulates that the international community has a collective responsibility to provide assistance and an obligation to take collective action in the most extreme situations when Member States are either unwilling or unable to adequately protect their populations.

Third, while the responsibility to protect directs attention to the plight of individuals suffering from egregious forms of violence and persecution, it does so in a way that respects and strengthens state sovereignty. Indeed, the principle is premised on the conviction that Member States enhance their sovereignty when they protect populations from atrocity crimes. The responsibility to protect and State sovereignty are thus mutually-reinforcing.

Fourth, Member States reached a carefully crafted agreement that limits the potential for the principle to be abused in the pursuit of other political objectives. The responsibility to protect is governed by the collective security provisions in Chapters VI, VII and VIII of the United Nations Charter. It encourages a broad perspective on the types of instruments the international community can use to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes. It also maintains that the use of any coercive measures requires Security Council authorization.

These elements of the responsibility to protect have proven both politically and practically powerful. Politically, they have contributed to the development of a consensus on issues that once divided the international community. Member States now agree that prevention is at the core of the principle, that international action should employ the full range of diplomatic, political and humanitarian measures, that military force should only be considered as a measure of last resort, and that implementation must take place in accordance with the United Nations Charter and other established principles of international law.

Practically, the responsibility to protect’s clear articulation of both the means available and the actors responsible for protection has enabled the Secretary-General to develop and elaborate a robust framework for implementation based on three equal and mutually-reinforcing pillars (8). Pillar I addresses how States can fulfil their primary responsibility to protect their populations (9). Pillar II outlines the collective responsibility of the international community to encourage and help States meet their responsibility to protect (10). Pillar III elaborates options for timely and decisive response (11). This framework has not only provided a guide for concrete efforts to improve atrocity prevention and response, but also helped to direct attention to areas where more work is needed.

In his most recent report, the Secretary-General assessed the first decade of the responsibility to protect, both lauding the progress made and demanding greater international commitment (12). While attention during the first ten years has naturally focused on building a common understanding of the principle, the Secretary-General concluded that time has now come to move from conceptual debates towards more practical consideration of implementation.

A Turn to Implementation

The adoption of the responsibility to protect reflected widespread recognition that the status quo was both inadequate and unacceptable. The principle was not designed to be a comfortable rhetorical restatement of common values, but rather a spur to action. Judged on this basis, it is clear that the principle remains painfully relevant. Acts that may constitute genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity are occurring in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of North Korea, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. These situations have created protection challenges of a staggering scale and produced widespread humanitarian crises, including a global migration and refugee crisis.

In more general terms, too many Member States have yet to become parties to the international conventions that set out the legal framework for the prevention and punishment of atrocity crimes, including the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. We are currently witnessing an alarming decline in the protection of human rights and respect for international humanitarian law, particularly in situations where national authorities have argued that exceptional security threats or political crises justify temporary abrogation from their legal obligations. 

On moral, political and legal grounds, the international community must do better. The imperative to accelerate implementation of the responsibility to protect is clear. Atrocity crimes directly challenge our common humanity. They have deep and lasting effects, destroying the social, political and economic foundations of societies and causing harm that lingers for generations. They constitute a threat to international peace and security and raise the risk that instability will cross borders, embroiling neighbours and the immediate region in increasingly complex crises. At a time when the international community’s capacity to mitigate and end conflict is already overstretched, atrocity crimes create new vulnerabilities and raise the demand for international assistance.

Meeting these challenges will require political determination, not just to uphold the principle itself, but also to devote the resources and undertake the institutional change necessary to improve our capacity to prevent and halt atrocity crimes. These steps will in turn depend on the willingness of a broad range of actors to more systematically assess and respond to atrocity crime risks, including by tailoring the strategies guiding related efforts in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and development.

There are some encouraging signs in this respect. Fifty-one Member States and the European Union have now joined the Global Network of R2P Focal Points (13). Each participant has formally designated a senior official responsible for promoting implementation of the responsibility to protect at the national level and fostering international cooperation on atrocity crime prevention and response. Complementary networks have also emerged to address these challenges at the global and regional levels, such as the Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes and the Latin American Network on Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention. Efforts are now underway in every region to translate the political commitment made in 2005 into practice.

These growing communities of commitment are part of a broader groundswell of action. In this context, we believe much can be accomplished by directing our energies to the pursuit of several core priorities.

First, the international community must make prevention the rule, not the exception. The Security Council, Human Rights Council, Peacebuilding Commission and regional organizations can all make a greater contribution by engaging in more open discussion of situations of concern. International consideration of emerging signs of risk should become a regular and accepted part of international cooperation. This requires not just a technical shift in working methods and a willingness to seek new information, but also a broader change in political culture and a commitment to early action.

Second, the international community must remain prepared to respond in a timely and decisive manner when confronted by atrocity crimes. The lesson to be learned from the intervention in Libya authorized by Security Council resolution 1973 is not that military means must always be avoided, but rather that any relevant mandates need to be clear in their goals, expected duration, and procedures for reviewing progress. International responses must also be informed at the outset by the need to provide sustained support to societies struggling to recover in the aftermath of atrocity crimes.

At the same time, we must recognize that inaction remains the greatest threat to populations at risk. The Security Council has a special responsibility to employ the full range of non-coercive and coercive tools available to prevent and halt genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. When members of the Security Council fail to agree on an effective and collective response, as they have too often in the case of Syria, the impact can be devastating, including for the reputation and standing of the United Nations.

Third, the international community must pay more attention to preventing the recurrence of atrocity crimes. Incomplete or failed peacebuilding processes can create conditions conducive to the perpetration of atrocity crimes. Societies that have suffered from atrocity crimes face unique challenges, especially with respect to reconciliation and accountability. Peacebuilding strategies need to be sensitive to these specific needs and designed to provide the longer-term support required.

Fourth, neighbours and regional organizations are often particularly well positioned to help States protect their populations. Not only are they more likely to understand the local context, but they can also bring longstanding political and economic relationships to bear. While the specific tools and mechanisms vary, each region also has existing institutions and practices that can be used to advance atrocity crime prevention and response.

Fifth, the growth of international and regional networks of focal points dedicated to atrocity crime prevention is a promising development. Building on this progress offers great promise. Expanding the networks will encourage a wider sharing of best practices. Empowering focal points with the resources and authority necessary to drive institutional change can contribute to building long-lasting infrastructure for prevention and protection.

While the breadth of this agenda may seem ambitious, steady progress on each of these priorities would significantly enhance the global, regional and national capacity available for atrocity prevention and response. With increased commitment and greater ingenuity, there is no reason why international efforts cannot match the scale of the crises we currently face.


The responsibility to protect is now firmly established as a vital and enduring principle. It provides an invaluable framework that reinforces existing legal obligations, builds political consensus on the way forward and provides practical policy and institutional guidance. While the last decade demonstrates that the responsibility to protect has not managed to translate commitment into action in every case, there are grounds for optimism. We know from recent experience that the collective weight of the international community can make a difference.

It is within this broader context that the responsibility to protect urges the international community not to retreat into cynicism or paralysis in the face of seemingly intractable crises. We cannot conclude that the means to prevent and halt genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity are beyond our grasp. The challenges of atrocity crimes may be daunting and the human cost staggering, but these are reasons to renew our determination and urgently accelerate implementation of the responsibility to protect. 


1 We use the term “atrocity crimes” exclusively to refer to the four acts specified in paragraph 138 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome. Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are defined in international criminal law; ethnic cleansing, while not established as a distinct crime, includes acts that will regularly amount to one of the crimes, in particular genocide and crimes against humanity

2 See, especially, Security Council resolutions 2150 (2014) and 2171 (2014).

3 ACHPR/Res.117 (XXXXII) 07: Resolution on Strengthening the Responsibility to Protect in Africa.

4 A7-0130/2013, European Parliament recommendation to the Council on the UN principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (‘R2P’).

5 Remarks to General Assembly Informal Interactive Dialogue on “A vital and enduring commitment: Implementing the responsibility to protect,” 8 September 2015.

6 A/RES/60/1, paragraph 138.

7 Ibid., paragraph 139

8 Report of the Secretary-General on implementing the responsibility to protect (A/63/677).

9 Report of the Secretary-General on fulfilling our collective responsibility: international assistance and the responsibility to protect (A/68/947).

10 Report of the Secretary-General on fulfilling our collective responsibility: international assistance and the responsibility to protect (A/68/947).

11 Report of the Secretary-General on responsibility to protect: timely and decisive response

12 Report of the Secretary-General on a vital and enduring commitment: implementing the responsibility to protect (A/69/981).

13 For additional detail, see R2P Focal Points.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the responsibility to protect and what led to its adoption?
  2. What has the responsibility to protect achieved in its first ten years?
  3. How can the United Nations and its Member States do more to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes? What is the Global Network of R2P Focal Points and why is it important?
  4. According to the authors, what remains the greatest threat to populations at risk? What role should the Security Council play in addressing these threats?
  5. Explain why the authors express their optimism in the face of “seemingly intractable crises” and see the responsibility to protect as being more relevant and important than ever before. Discuss how you see the challenges of atrocity crimes and the potential to better protect vulnerable communities.

The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

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