A Syrian Arab Red Crescent member prepares a vaccine in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern edges of the Syrian capital Damascus, 3 March 2016. Photo: Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images.

A Syrian Arab Red Crescent member prepares a vaccine in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern edges of the Syrian capital Damascus, 3 March 2016. Photo: Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images.

The year 2019 marks both the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions and the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1265, the first to address the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Upon these foundations, and in response to the mass atrocities witnessed at the close of the 20th century, in 2005 the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P)[1] was codified by all UN member states to prevent such horrors from occurring in the future.

R2P is defined by three pillars which emphasize, first, the primary responsibility of the state to ensure the safety and security of its civilians. The second pillar stresses the responsibility of the international community to support states in this aim. The third iterates that the international community has the obligation to ensure the protection of civilians when a state has manifestly failed to do so; or when a state has targeted and attacked its own citizens.

Since its adoption, R2P has been criticized both for failing to mobilize interventions when necessary, and at other times for providing a smokescreen for possible violations of state sovereignty.[2] In large part, this can be attributed to the interpretation of R2P’s third and most contentious pillar.

From interventionism during the 2000s[3] to more recent international responses to situations in Georgia and Ukraine,[4] this pillar has been subject to misappropriation by a variety of actors – which in turn has harmed the R2P principle more broadly.

This has led to the present situation in which questions loom over R2P’s relevance and legitimacy, compounded by ever-growing challenges to the international rules-based system. It should not, however, take another mass atrocity on the scale seen in Rwanda or Srebrenica to encourage the international community to acknowledge the present failings of R2P.

An examination of the challenges associated with R2P’s interpretation and implementation is imperative if workable solutions are to be found to ensure the most important of human rights: the right to live securely.

To prevent is to protect

Recent discussion has shifted towards the provision of preventative action, as articulated in R2P’s second pillar.[5] This seems logical given that the act of protection is, by definition, preventative, and given that a broad consensus already exists as to the legitimacy of such approaches.[6]

It is therefore worth considering strategies that emphasize this particular element of R2P as an entry point for efforts to improve protection: in other words leveraging interest in, and tolerance of, pillar two to facilitate development of a more sustainable and robust framework.

Such an initiative would, however, have to be approached in a pragmatic manner, given the reduced appetite for international norms.[7] As such, it should take the form of a recalibration of R2P, with the second pillar explicated and developed to reflect the increasingly multifaceted nature of governance.

The primary obstacle to revitalizing R2P in this way is the likelihood that such action may be interpreted as ‘upstreaming’ interventionism, which would equate to little less than the transposition of pillar three at an earlier stage.

To address this, policy development would benefit from increased cooperation between the UN, regional groupings and civil society organizations (CSOs).

There is an opportunity for the UN to rediscover its role as the coordinator of such action, given that regional leadership on R2P has been lacking in the EU[8] and has gone unsupported in, for example, West Africa.[9] Key aspects of this role could involve the UN promoting capacity-building efforts and developing joint-response mechanisms with regional organizations.[10]

When undertaken in a preventative capacity, these efforts would benefit from the legitimacy afforded by the UN, while utilizing the local knowledge and resources available within each region to prepare responses to future crises.

The resulting structures and mechanisms might then serve as ‘tripwire’ warning mechanisms and deterrents respectively which, if compromised, would bolster any subsequent case for action under pillar three.

Actualizing pillar two

Complementing this work, the role of CSOs should be clarified to diversify the pool of those responsible within the international community for ensuring the protection of civilians. Meaningful cooperation between the UN and civil society has thus far been undermined by ambiguity over what the protection of civilians means and uncertainty as to the optimum role of CSOs within R2P.[11]

However, some operational CSOs are already widely perceived as key players in the early-warning process,[12] and at a minimum should therefore have this important function more formalized. Capacity-building and response mechanisms involving in-country CSOs would benefit from such groups’ ability to sound the alarm on nascent threats to security.

This approach would also bolster the transparency of preventative actions by diversifying the range of stakeholders involved. It would provide a legitimized, independent source of reporting and verification on instances of instability.

This could provide the UN with the evidence required to recognize threats to civilian lives and increase political will among UN Security Council members to discharge their responsibilities – in line with the UN Charter, and as validated in the Sustainable Development Goals. Through broadening the base of authorized actors, the responsibility can be shared, acknowledged and acted upon.

Although R2P is frequently viewed as peripheral to many national interests, it should be considered crucial to the security of all states. The conflict in Syria, which has forced millions of people mostly westwards, continues to challenge the capacity of neighbouring states to absorb and care for the displaced.

Ongoing threats to human security in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have forced other people to flee to countries including Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain.[13] Reactive response has become the norm, at the expense of effective prevention measures.

Efforts such as the Focal Points Initiative, which has encouraged each state to appoint a senior civil servant to lead national efforts to galvanize R2P, have had limited impact.[14] Countries such as the UK have come under criticism for failing to appoint an official who is sufficiently senior, or wholly dedicated to mainstreaming R2P across relevant government departments.[15]

More encouraging have been initiatives born out of work by the High-Level Advisory Panel on the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia.[16] Many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are beginning to develop and integrate R2P-pertinent curriculums into training courses conducted in, for example, police and justice agencies.[17] Other states have improved early-warning systems.

Similarly, states facilitating development aid projects in fragile contexts would do well to countenance the security needs of the beneficiaries of such work. For example, if key community facilities are being constructed by donor agencies or NGOs in established towns, can these facilities be safely accessed along main routes from nearby villages or rural communities? Small changes could provide significant security benefits in areas where instability persists.


R2P is presently vulnerable to the dual forces of disinterest within an international community that is increasingly at odds with itself and actors who may look to exploit this lack of coherence. As the foundations of the rules-based system are placed under greater strain, R2P runs the risk of sliding further into irrelevance.

While a lack of consensus prevails at the state level, this safeguard of human security must instead be reinforced through alternative structures which are more agile and capable of responding within present geopolitical confines. Indecision and infighting cannot be permitted to trump the protection of civilians. R2P must be reinvigorated, not abandoned, by the international community.

What needs to happen

  • Revitalizing R2P has to be done in a pragmatic manner, building on existing structures.
  • Efforts should focus on the preventative aspects of R2P’s second pillar.
  • R2P approaches must engage a wider stakeholder base. Responsibilities should be distributed more evenly throughout the international community, in collaboration with civil society actors.
  • R2P considerations must be mainstreamed within development practice, particularly at the state and regional levels.

[1] First published in 2001 by the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS).

[2] Belloni, R. (2014), ‘Civil Society and the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Society, 28(2), pp. 158–79.

[3] Moses, J., Bahador, B. and Wright, T. (2011), ‘The Iraq War and the Responsibility to Protect: Uses, Abuses and Consequences for the Future of Humanitarian Intervention’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 5(4), pp. 347–67.

[4] Cox, D. G. and Stanley, B. (2018), ‘The Responsibility to Protect has Turned into a Strategic Mistake’, E International Relations, 1 October 2018, https://www.e-ir.info/2018/10/01/the-responsibility-to-protect-has-turn….

[5] Guterres, A. (2017), ‘Remarks to General Assembly informal dialogue on the responsibility to protect’, United Nations, 6 September 2017, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2017-09-06/secretary-gener….

[6] Smith, K. E. (2018), The EU and the Responsibility to Protect in an Illiberal Era, Dahrendorf Forum IV Working Paper No. 03, https://www.dahrendorf-forum.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/EU-and-RTP-i….

[7] Niblett, R. (2018), ‘Rediscovering a sense of purpose: the challenge for western think-tanks’, International Affairs, 94(6), November 2018, pp. 1409–1429, https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiy199.

[8] Smith (2018), The EU and the Responsibility to Protect in an Illiberal Era.

[9] Wabuke, E. (2019), ‘Regional Organizations’ Application of R2P: The ECOWAS Military Intervention Into the Gambia’, Lawfare, 22 May 2019, https://www.lawfareblog.com/regional-organizations-application-r2p-ecow….

[10] Genser, J. (2018), ‘The United Nations Security Council’s Implementation of the Responsibility to Protect: A Review of Past Interventions and Recommendations for Improvement’, Chicago Journal of International Law, 18(2), https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cjil/vol18/iss2/2.

[11] Willmot, H. and Sheeran, S. (2014), ‘The protection of civilians mandate in UN peacekeeping operations: reconciling protection concepts and practices’, International Review of the Red Cross (2013), 95 (891/892), pp. 517–38.

[12] Belloni (2014), ‘Civil Society and the Responsibility to Protect’.

[13] International Organization for Migration (2018), ‘Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals Reach 10,949 in 2018; Deaths Reach 442’, press release, 9 March 2018, https://www.iom.int/news/mediterranean-migrant-arrivals-reach-10949-201….

[14] Ralph, J. (2014), Mainstreaming the responsibility to protect in UK strategy, report for United Nations Association, p. 10, https://www.una.org.uk/sites/default/files/UNA-UK%20Policy%20briefing%2….

[15] Ferguson, K. (2017), Maintaining momentum in a changing world: Atrocity prevention in UK policy, report for Protection Approaches, p. 9, https://ecr2p.leeds.ac.uk/ecr2p-assists-ngo-report-on-atrocity-preventi….

[16] Pitsuwan, S., Nguyen Duy, H., Wibisono, M., Mahathir, M. and Romulo, A. (2014), Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia, report of the High-Level Advisory Panel on the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia, https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/responsibility-to-pr….

[17] Frank, D. A. (2018), ‘The Reduction of Mass Atrocity Crimes in East Asia: The Evolving Norms of ASEAN's Prevention Mechanisms’, Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, (11)3, pp. 98–108.

This essay was produced for the 2019 edition of Chatham House Expert Perspectives – our annual survey of risks and opportunities in global affairs – in which our researchers identify areas where the current sets of rules, institutions and mechanisms for peaceful international cooperation are falling short, and present ideas for reform and modernization.