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Seminar on 'Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: Challenges and Opportunities'

Date: 2 November 2012 (Friday)
Time: 10 - 11.30am
Venue: RSIS, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Nanyang Avenue, Block S3.1, Level B3 (New Wing), Seminar Room 2
Speaker: Prof. Alex Bellamy (Professor of International Security and Director of the Human Protection Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia)
Chairperson: Assoc. Prof. Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, Centre for NTS Studies, RSIS, NTU



The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) is an emerging norm that focuses on preventing and stopping four mass atrocities: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. It emphasises the primary responsibility of the state to protect its population from the four crimes. The norm also outlines the responsibility of the international community to assist states to fulfil the RtoP.

Click here to view the seminar slides.

The RtoP was unanimously endorsed at the 2005 UN World Summit and later invoked in some UN resolutions and peace operations. However, there are still many controversies surrounding the meaning, scope and application of the concept. Despite the unanimous support at the 2005 World Summit, receptiveness to the RtoP varies from region to region. More efforts are needed to enhance understanding and implementation of the RtoP.

This presentation reviews the evolution of the RtoP from its nascent stage in the early 2000s and provides an overview of some of the critical debates regarding its implementation and conceptual development. It also offers advice on the strategy forward.



The RtoP is a consolidation of previous developments in the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. The phrase ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ was first articulated by Francis Deng in the early 1990s in relation to addressing conflict-induced human vulnerabilities. In the 1990s, the world witnessed several massive atrocious crimes against civilians, such as the Somali civil war, the Rwandan genocide, and the Srebrenica massacre. Some of the crimes were sanctioned by the governments of the countries involved; and the international community failed to take effective measures to stop the atrocities, due to geopolitical considerations and also to the importance of the Westphalian principles in international relations. There thus emerged calls for states to be responsible for the security of their populations. The notion of sovereignty as responsibility reminds state leaders of the fact that sovereignty not only represents the exclusive jurisdiction over internal affairs but also entails the responsibility to protect its people from the harm of severe abuses.

In response to the rising incidence of intra-state conflicts and serious human rights violations, the UN and regional organisations such as the African Union specifically noted the issue of protecting civilians in conflict situations. The Report of the Panel on UN Peace Operations (2000) pointed out that it is imperative to include protection duties in UN peacekeeping missions. Also, protection issues have been a thematic area in UN debates since the early 2000s. At the regional level, relevant development was seen in the African Union. The Constitutive Act of the African Union stated that the Union has the right to intervene pursuant to a joint decision of the Assembly should grave circumstances that include genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity arise in a member state.

These early attempts laid the foundation for the birth of the RtoP in 2001. The International Commission of Intervention and State Sovereignty, at the behest of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, produced a report titled The Responsibility to Protect. The RtoP was initially conceived as a three-phase continuum consisting of prevention, reaction and rebuilding in regard to the four identified mass atrocities. The three stages do not need to be implemented in sequential order.

The RtoP has experienced a series of conceptual developments since then, the most important of which was the incorporation of the RtoP into the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. It was explicitly stated in the Outcome Document that the state should be responsible for protecting its population and that the international community should step in if a state is unable or unwilling to do so. In 2009, the UN Secretary-General outlined a three-pillar strategy for the further implementation of the RtoP. Again, the state’s primary role was emphasised (Pillar I). The second pillar noted the importance of international assistance in building the state’s capacity to protect its people, while the third suggested the need for timely and decisive measures in the case of unfolding mass atrocities. The three pillars are non-sequential and mutually reinforcing.

The possibility that the RtoP could lead to intervention makes it appear in conflict with the Westphalian institution that underpins the existing international order. It is thus essential to clarify the definition and scope of the concept so as to avoid misunderstanding and misuse. The RtoP should be invoked strictly for the four crimes stated in the 2005 Outcome Document. The RtoP is aimed at protecting populations, which actually reinforces state sovereignty; thus the RtoP is not against the UN Charter and the principle of non-interference.

The RtoP provides a perspective to address human consequences of civil conflicts and violence at the domestic level that is different from the traditional conflict resolution perspective. Instead of focusing on brokering peace between different parties to the conflict, the RtoP emphasises the responsibility of these parties for their populations. The RtoP does not represent permission to intervene arbitrarily. Appropriate authorisation that conforms to relevant international regimes would be required in the event of the need for enforcement measures.

Since the inception of the RtoP in 2001, there have been a number of cases associated with the concept, such as the Darfur crisis, the Kenyan post-election crisis in 2008, Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and the Sri Lankan civil war between 2008 and 2009. The Kenyan case is regarded as a successful case, with the RtoP being implemented in a timely and appropriate manner to defuse the imminent threat of mass atrocities. In the UN resolutions on the situation in Libya in 2011, the RtoP was invoked to emphasise the urgency of taking measures to protect the people against severe abuses. Nevertheless, there are also cases of misuse. Russia attempted to use the RtoP to justify its conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner proposed to authorise forcible delivery of humanitarian aid to Myanmar in the name of the RtoP. The invocation of the RtoP in the two cases was rejected by both RtoP advocates and people holding a cautious view on the RtoP because neither was within the scope of the four crimes designated in the 2005 Outcome Document. Despite the mixed results of previous implementation of the RtoP, the concept still remains relevant to some ongoing situations in Syria, Mali, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

Despite the advance achieved in the past decade, the RtoP still faces many challenges and controversies when it comes to implementation and operationalisation. The use of force has been most controversial, as demonstrated by the backlash after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military operation in Libya. It is essential to establish criteria for decision-making on use of force and to hold the countries concerned accountable for enforcement measures taken. Given the controversial nature of the use of force, the emphasis on the future development of the RtoP should be placed on prevention. Moreover, as the UN is the most important platform where RtoP situations are discussed and addressed, mainstreaming RtoP and civilian protection in the UN system is helpful for the implementation. Engagement should be strengthened between the UN, regional organisations and non-state actors. These measures are consistent with the three-pillar strategy.



As the world’s most representative body for international security, the UN is the central stage for discussions and decisions on the RtoP. However, the importance of the UN also makes the RtoP susceptible to the internal dynamics and power politics of the UN. For instance, the UN Security Council has been divided over the situation in Syria and this has led to a standstill in the international effort to resolve the conflict. Despite the ineffectiveness, or even inaction, of the UN in some RtoP cases, departure from the UN-centered approach would further complicate the situation. Regional arrangements have been proposed by some as the better choice for implementing the RtoP. The fact that regional organisations are often constrained by insufficient financial and technical capabilities makes it crucial for regional organisations to cooperate with the UN to get support. One option to improve the effectiveness of the UN in responding to an RtoP situation is to increase the influence of non-permanent members of the Security Council. This could include more voices supportive of the RtoP.

Use of force is always a controversial issue, which often leads to the RtoP being associated with previous contentious issues such as the debates over humanitarian intervention – thus causing deadlock on how to tackle a mass atrocity situation. Exceptions would only occur when the situation becomes as severe as the Rwandan genocide. It is thus more effective to place greater emphasis on prevention, so that a situation does not escalate to the highest severity in the first place. It is also necessary to build accountability into each enforcement mechanism. Representatives of the enforcement missions should report to the UN Security Council after the mission is completed. The accountability mechanism monitors the missions to minimise inappropriate measures and behaviours that could provoke resentment or opposition to the enforcement missions.


About the speaker

Alex Bellamy is Professor of International Security and Director of the Human Protection Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia. He is also Non-Resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute, New York and Director (International) of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He recently served as co-chair of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) Study Group on the Responsibility to Protect.

Posted on: 2/11/2012 10:00:00 AM  |  Topic: Internal and Cross-Border Conflict

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