Responsibility to Protect

The Knotted Gun - Responsibility to Protect

Lara Kajs | 20 July 2022 |

In his 2000 Millennium Report, Kofi Annan asked, “if humanitarian intervention is an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” Responsibility to Protect became the response to Mr. Annan’s question.

Developed by the International Committee on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, as it is often referred to, is an international standard that seeks to ensure that the international community should never again fail to prevent and respond to mass atrocity crimes, identified as genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.


R2P was adopted at the UN World Summit in 2005. The Summit was the largest gathering of Heads of State and governments in history. Responsibility to protect specifies three objectives:

1. Every state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
2. The international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting the responsibility to protect their citizens from atrocity crimes.
3. If a state is obviously failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner in accordance with the UN charter.


Since R2P was implemented, it has been cited in more than eighty UN Security Council Resolutions concerning crises in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

R2P has been cited in resolutions concerning the prevention of genocide and armed conflict, as well as restricting the trade of small arms and light weapons. The responsibility to protect has been invoked in fifty UN Human Rights Council Resolutions and in thirteen UN General Assembly Resolutions.

Responsibility to Protect is a shared responsibility by all Member States – not a few select power nations. Under the UN Charter, Member States are required to act. Whether action includes diplomatic, humanitarian, or other means necessary to protect populations from atrocity crimes, Member States must act.

Use of Force

The question of the use of force or military intervention is a common thread in conversations regarding R2P. Authorization for the use of force intervention rests with the UN Security Council and Chapter VII of the Charter and is only authorized as a last resort in the event of genocide or other serious international crimes. But the mass killing of people, for no other reason than who they are – their identity – is why R2P was adopted. The purpose is to save people from atrocity crimes. Yet still, the international community struggles with military intervention as it relates to mass atrocities.

If the authority to use force rests solely with the UN Security Council, what is the standard for it to act? In both Rwanda and Srebrenica, the use of force intervention – even as a deterrent – from peacekeepers and other support troops could have been the difference between saving hundreds of thousands of lives in Rwanda and preventing genocide in both countries.

While military intervention is an active solution, it is not the only one. Sanctions, embargoes, diplomatic isolation, and International Criminal Court prosecution are also effective methods that can be used to support the responsibility to protect.


R2P is meant to limit human suffering, protect populations, and prevent atrocities. And yet, by any standard – the use of chemical weapons and cluster munitions by Bashar al-Assad against the people of Syria hits at least three of the four atrocities specifically targeted by R2P. Member States swore an obligation to intervene where atrocities are being committed against civilian populations – how has the situation in Syria rolled into the second decade as atrocities are still being committed against the people of Syria? How is the responsibility to protect the people of Syria been effective?

As long as offending states are allied with superpower seat holders on the Security Council – a vote to act against countries who violate R2P and commit atrocity crimes against populations will likely be blocked. Russia and China habitually block votes that would hold Bashar al-Assad accountable. Russia invaded Ukraine and began an unprovoked war. In the process, it bombed maternity hospitals, civilian housing, and movie theaters, and used chemical weapons, tortured, and killed prisoners of war. It is not likely that Russia will vote to sanction itself or vote to the use of force intervention against itself – but neither does any other member state on the Security Council want to use force against Russia. So where does that leave the people of Ukraine in the promise of responsibility to protect?

Referral to ICC

Syria and Ukraine are just two cases in which the UN Security Council has failed to respond effectively. After nearly thirteen years of sanctions and resolutions against the Syrian leadership, as well as sanctions against Russia for its unprovoked attack on Ukraine and acts of war crimes, it is time for the UN Security Council to refer these situations, and many others, to the International Criminal Court and allow it to hold the offenders accountable. To allow the perpetrators to continue with impunity is an assault on their responsibility to protect.

Photo Credit: “Non–Violence or The Knotted Gun by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, UN New York” by mira66 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.