Responsibility to protect

IssueDecember 2004 - February 2005
Feature by Howard Clark, Kat Barton


What is it?

In his report to the 2000 General Assembly, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan challenged the international community to forge consensus around the so-called “right of humanitarian intervention”: the question of when, if ever, it is appropriate for states to take coercive - in particular military - action, against other states for the purpose of protecting people at risk in that other state. It was in response to that challenge that the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was established by the Canadian government in September 2000. The result of the Commission's work is a report whose central theme is “The Responsibility To Protect” or R2P as it has become known: “the idea that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe, but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states”. (From the Responsibility To Protect website.)

Why does it exist?

After the crises and accompanying interventions of the'90s, it was clear that if intervention for human protection purposes was to be accepted - including the possibility of military action - it was necessary for the misnamed “international community” (ie governments) to develop certain consistent and enforceable standards. Indeed, a coherent international policy was felt to be “critical to the credibility and authority of the international community”. (Kofi Annan at the launch of the “The Responsibility to Protect” report.)

What is the logic behind the R2P ethos?

According to the Commission, the obligation to ensure the equal protection of all citizens of a state is an intrinsic part of the concept of sovereignty. It therefore argued for a redefinition of sovereignty to include the obligation of the “international community” to intervene if necessary - and militarily if absolutely necessary - where a state ignores or violates its duty to protect its citizens from harm. In essence, the report established a just-cause threshold dependent on the scale of harm to a civilian population. The report identifies three facets within of the R2P: the responsibility to prevent, responsibility to react, and the responsibility to rebuild.

What problems arise fromthe notion of R2P?

Military training and strategy is focused on winning wars and defeating enemies, and in particular in cases of inter-state conflict: it is not adapted to safeguarding human security in situations of civil conflict. Whilst R2P is presented as a universal ethical imperative, in reality the doctrine would be applied extremely selectively and never against major powers. R2P is simply a conceptual reframing of the “right to intervene” - in an address to the International Peace Academy Kofi Annan stated that “A central accomplishment of the `Responsibility to Protect' report is its title - its restatement of the core issue at the heart of the debate on intervention. You have suggested a constructive shift away from debates about a `right to intervene' towards the assertion of a `responsibility to protect'. I admire your diplomatic skill in redirecting the debate, and - believe me - I wish I had thought of this myself.”