The Responsibility to Protect (R2P): A Death in Embryo

Jed Lea-Henry
8 min readJul 13, 2017


The sheer fact that we are not talking about it means that it has died! With all the harm that we are currently seeing in Syria and Iraq, the Doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect — or R2P — should be rolling off our tongues daily, and should be echoing in the language of our politicians. In the absence of such a prominent role, it is now increasingly obvious that what was once a promising ethical development has, in fact, died a quiet death whilst still only in its embryonic stages.

It all began with an eclectic, yet commissioned for purpose, group of academics, authors and former politicians. Tasked with addressing the “so-called right of humanitarian intervention”, a short pamphlet was produced in 2001 entitled The Responsibility to Protect (R2P). It was immediately saved from obscurity by the authorship of Michael Ignatieff — what would otherwise have been a mundane legal document was brought to life by the urgent and emotive prose synonymous with Ignatieff’s work.

Rwanda was its self-described launch-pad: in as far as it “laid bare the full horror of [international] inaction”. In 1994, as ethnic violence erupted following the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana, Force Commander of the UN mission, Major-General Romeo Dallaire, predicted that he could have halted the violence with as few as 5000 international troops. Instead, the international community watched-on passively over the next three months as 800,000 Rwandans were killed, 500,000 women raped, and as half of the pre-conflict population were displaced.

Inaction in Rwanda left such an indelible scar on the face of the international community that it ironically became a point of motivation: a catch phrase around which moral courage could be summoned, and from which political will could form. The interventions in Kosovo and East Timor represented just such moments. Yet for every success story, there were still countless more failures — insipid or simply non-existent commitments that allowed serious humanitarian crises in places such as Bosnia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Darfur to simply rumble on unabated.

There was a sense that the moral impetus of such situations was consistently being lost in the face of certain legal and institutional barriers. Although it was often justified through the language of the United Nations Charter, by developments in human rights law, or through normative precedents, the legal basis for humanitarian intervention remained tenuous. There was no explicit humanitarian provision in international law. A situation that brought then-Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, to declare “the UN must undergo the most sweeping overhaul in its 60 year history” — R2P was the embodiment of this intent.

To cut through much of the legal detail, where R2P primarily distinguished itself was with a single new idea: where the sovereignty of countries had always been an inviolable aspect of the international order, with R2P such sovereignty became contingent upon the human rights standards within the countries themselves. Specifically, in the event that any country was either “unwilling or unable” to protect its own citizens from mass atrocities, then the international community would not only be legally entitled, but also legally obligated, to intervene.

This shift in practice ought not to be underestimated: it represented a thorough reshaping of the international system, and importantly, if implemented, the end or at least the complete marginalisation of all civil wars and mass atrocities. As overly optimistic as this might sound, it could be — R2P was, after all, a purely academic project.

Yet oddly enough, real momentum began to form behind the initiative — so much so that a UN Panel soon made official note of R2P as an “emerging norm”, and then in 2005 the UN World Summit officially adopted R2P. It was reaffirmed six months later by the UN General Assembly, then again in 2009 and 2011. What was once little more than a hopeful idea, had quickly become a global institution.

R2P was further legitimised through practical application, with the UN Security Council referencing it in resolutions concerning Burundi, Mali, Yemen, Cote d‘Ivoire, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The buoyant atmosphere was summed up by UK Foreign Minister Jack Straw “if this new responsibility had been in place a decade ago, thousands in Srebrenica and Rwanda would have been saved”.

However, it was always going to be the case that the success, or failure, of R2P would need to be judged by its outcomes. And this is where the gloss of R2P began to fade. The three, much championed success stories of R2P were Kenya, Sri Lanka and Libya — yet all three were not quite as they seemed.

In Kenya and Sri Lanka, it was merely the language of R2P that was credited with staving-off, or diminishing the violence — effectively reducing the substance of R2P to that of a diplomatic tool. Moreover, it is almost impossible to judge the real impact that a few well-intentioned statements actually had on these conflicts. And, inexplicably the invocation of R2P in Kenya was likely to be, in retrospect, inappropriate, considering that the violence had not yet reached R2P’s self-described thresholds for its use.

Libya was considered to be the high watermark for R2P. As Colonel Gaddafi began suppressing the peaceful protests of his own population, R2P became the driving-force behind the international response — initially to condemn, then to impose embargoes, and later to militarily intervene.

However, this is a slight misreading of history. The Libyan intervention was authorised under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the exact same provision that various other interventions had been authorised under, prior to the establishment of R2P; significantly, Russia, China, India and Brazil all chose to abstain from the Security Council vote; the relevant UN resolution made no explicit mention of R2P; and neither of the two key public justifications — Barack Obama’s keynote speech, and the co-authored joint-statement by Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron — made any reference to R2P. Yet despite all of this, at least there was still an intervention by which R2P could be graded.

This was more than could be said for the vast majority of post-R2P conflicts: long running humanitarian crises in Darfur, Somalia, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Gaza strip, Zimbabwe, and North Korea remained either entirely unaddressed or demonstrably under-resourced.

And things were only getting worse for the fledgling doctrine: R2P was deliberately misappropriated by France whilst trying to intervene in Myanmar in order to address the aftermath of a cyclone; it was used as a Trojan Horse by Russia in order to justify their annexation of South Ossetia; and Tony Blair tried to use R2P in order to retrospectively justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

These failures were, in many ways, predictable — R2P was never quite as ground-breaking as it seemed. Designed to be a pathway beyond the enduring barrier of state sovereignty, R2P was in many ways addressing a challenge that did not exist.

Sovereignty may have been a sacrosanct ideal — something built-up to the level of inviolability by an ever increasing crescendo of emotional sentiment — yet it has always been limited in theory, and routinely violated in practice: (1) be it through the plain meaning of the UN Charter; (2) the rulings of the International Court of Justice; (3) as a result of bi-lateral agreements and treaties; (4) following the development of international law and human rights legislation such as the Genocide Convention; (5) through the normative implications of universal jurisdiction as outlined in the formation of the International Criminal Court and International Criminal Tribunals; (6) and importantly, as a consequence of international precedent, such as with the creation of the no-fly zone over Iraqi-Kurdistan.

This would go some way to explaining the deep, palpable confusion that existed around R2P from its conception. Indeed an immediate disconnect formed between the theoretical meaning of the doctrine and what countries believed they were actually signing up to — with splits forming between those who thought that they had not authorised R2P in any capacity, those who thought they had accepted the World Summit document, and those who thought they were also bound by the originally commissioned R2P pamphlet.

And this last distinction is more than academic: the World Summit document represented a significant linguistic watering down of the original R2P document. The category of violence that R2P was to address had been increased; the threshold beyond which a country would be considered as failing in its R2P responsibilities was also increased; the criteria for justifying military intervention was completely expunged; and, after widespread objections, the word “obligation” was entirely removed from the document.

After these changes, the World Summit version of R2P — the version that was internationally accepted (at least in principle) — did nothing more than reiterate a list of already commonly established principles. Viciously diluted, then still only sparsely accepted, R2P existed as an ambiguous, and above all else, entirely meaningless doctrine: a disingenuous approach that brought the Chairman of the original report, Gareth Evans, to accuse the international community of having “buyer’s remorse”.

What was becoming increasingly clear, was that by the time of R2P’s birth by means of international consensus, it was, in fact, already dead. This can be seen in the enduring humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq — if R2P was to mean anything it would have to mean something here.

Yet, as peaceful protests were first suppressed by the Syrian government, then when civil war erupted, and later as groups such as Islamic State began to annex territory — violence that has since spread to large parts of Iraq — the type of humanitarian intervention that R2P mandated has been entirely absent.

Rather, what has manifested is an international response entirely comprised of aerial bombing — and with the explicit promise of ‘no boots on the ground’. Effectively, the international community is willing to intervene if, and only if, it comes at no human cost to the intervening countries. R2P was designed to defend certain values — the basic human rights of all people, regardless of citizenship — yet what worth can these values have, if they are only defended after impunity is guaranteed?

Worse still, even with such a restricted and inadequate intervention, the language of R2P was conspicuously missing. Whereas R2P could once have been criticised for being nothing more than a catch-phrase without any substance to back it up, it was now not even that.

Originally championed as a bridge between our best moral concerns and the action required to address them, it is hard to shake-off the impression that R2P, from its inception, never really existed — that rather than merely having a short shelf-life, in reality there was simply nothing there to begin with.

The tragedy here is not specifically the failure of R2P as a doctrine, but rather it is the gap that is left in the international landscape — as explained by Gareth Evans and his Co-chairman for the original R2P report, Mohamed Sahnoun, “It is only a matter of time before reports emerge again from somewhere of massacres, mass starvation, rape, and ethnic cleansing. And then the question will arise again in the Security Council, in political capitals, and in the media: What do we do?”