The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine 

Foreign Policy Brief # 127| By: Ibrahim Sultan | August 27, 2021

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Policy Summary

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The international community needs to develop more effective norms and mechanisms to deal with an ever increasing number of global issues. One such mechanism is the United Nations Responsibility to Protect (R2P) , a doctrine agreed upon at a UN World Summit in 2005.

R2P sets forth a global framework to protect populations around the world from major atrocities and crimes which include: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. R2P  has three reinforcing pillars: I. the duty of every state to protect its people from these crimes, II. the commitment of the international community to help states fulfill their responsibilities, and III. the commitment of countries to take collective action under the UN Charter when a state manifestly cannot protect its populations.

In his Millennium Report of 2000, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, acknowledged the failures of the Security Council to act in a decisive manner in Rwanda and Kosovo, and he  put forward a challenge to Member States: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” In response the Canadian sponsored   International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty  (ICISS) developed a report with  guidelines for a new way to conduct international humanitarian interventions.  The ICISS Report began by pointing out that the primary responsibility for protecting people rests first with an individual State. However, ‘residual responsibility’ also lies within the broader international community, which is activated when a particular state is unwilling or unable to fulfill its responsibility to protect or is itself the perpetrator of crimes and atrocities. The UN built on the ICISS recommendations.

The 2005 World Summit, which took place at UN Headquarters in New York, brought together more than 170 heads of state and government. The summit’s agenda was based on a series of proposals put forward by Secretary-General Annan in his report In Larger Freedom. In his report “ Annan  proposed the Responsibility to Protect doctrine with its three pillars. He suggested that the UN apply R2P when states were unable to protect their citizens from major atrocities and crimes.  He suggested that R2P also draw on a list of  criteria – including seriousness of the threat, proportionality and chance of success – that could be applied to the UN’s authorization of the use of force  R2P, Annan stated, provided a framework for allowing the UN to employ intervention measures that are already part of the UN system such as, mediation, economic sanctions, and the authority to employ the use of force.

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Majority votes, in either the UN General Assembly (UNGA) or UN Security Council (UNSC) are needed to invoke an R2P intervention.The intervention can take several forms (diplomacy, sanctions, and military intervention), and can be carried out by concerned  countries upon the approval of the UN.  R2P has been invoked in more than 80 UN Security Council resolutions and 13 UNGA resolutions. Recently on May 17, 2021, The UN General Assembly passed a resolution with 115 states voting in favor, 28 abstaining, and 15 voting against to include R2P on the annual agenda of the GA..

R2Ps critics see it as a western notion that reflects the imbalance in global power and governance. In its most recent and glaring case, in 2011, the UN Security Council invoked R2P authorizing the use of force and a no-fly zone  to protect civilians in Libya from Muammar Gaddafi’s security and air forces. 

The US and NATO under the approval of a UN Security Council resolution went further than the mandate to impose a no-fly zone  and stated they sought regime change. The rebel forces being protected by the US and NATO overthrew Gaddafi. But this led to splintering militias and a civil war that has killed thousands and displaced many more. It also became the starting point for migrants dying at sea trying to reach Europe and even spawned  a growing slave trade. In this case R2P caused far more lasting damage than was planned. 

Critics assert that while it is noble in its goals, R2P is unrealistic in practice. Opponents claim states will only use R2P to fulfill their own interests.

Proponents argue that the Responsibility to Protect is necessary to ensure human security around the globe and not only to assist when crimes are committed but as a check to prevent them from occurring in the first place. They claim the doctrine reinforces sovereignty by assisting nations in meeting their existing responsibilities and offers opportunities for the United Nations to assist states in preventing the listed violations and protecting affected populations. 

Policy Analysis

The international community adopted the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to ensure that the genocides and crimes of the 20th century were never repeated. However, in practice the implementation of R2P has often fallen to major powers who often lose sight of R2P’s humanitarian goals.

Meeting the ‘legal’ prerequisites to military intervention- or fundamentally, getting the UNSC’s approval to intervene does not guarantee any real compliance with the normative requirements of R2P. This was clear when the US and NATO intervened in Libya on tUNSC orders to help remove Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and prevent genocide. R2P was invoked by the UN Security Council, but the US and NATO moved beyond what was agreed upon. For the doctrine to succeed, it is essential that realpolitik be removed from R2P interventions.


Photo taken from: Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

R2P is about preventing and protecting people from the most heinous crimes humanity has committed–genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Its ideals are a promise to never allow those crimes to be repeated. Even though it is not a perfect framework and there have been colossal failures and inaction, the doctrine should not be abandoned just because it has been difficult to perfect.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.


Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect – The Global Centre engages in advocacy around specific crises, conducts research designed to further understanding of R2P, recommends strategies to help states build capacity, and works closely with NGOs, governments, and regional bodies which are seeking to operationalize the Responsibility to Protect.

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UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect – The office is focused on prevention, including early warning. The Office that supports the Special Advisers gathers information from a variety of sources (within and outside the United Nations system) to make an assessment of whether there is a risk of atrocity crimes in a particular situation, or whether the commission of atrocity crimes is on-going or may have taken place.

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