Mass Violence and Atrocities | Selected Article

Acting on the Responsibility to Protect

Alex J. Bellamy | March 2016

Five-Year Progress Report on How the World’s Nations Are Doing

The United Nations member states adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005 to recognize and guide local and global responsibility for protecting individuals from atrocity crimes—namely genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Five years later, in 2010, the Stanley Center convened a meeting of UN officials, permanent representatives to the United Nations, and human protection experts at Tarrytown, New York, to assess progress to date and discuss the future implementation of R2P.

The meeting identified seven concrete actions that needed to be taken:

  1. Develop an early warning and assessment capability in the United Nations of potential atrocity threats.
  2. Improve the United Nations’ capacity for timely and decisive responses to atrocities.
  3. Establish a UN office to jointly address genocide prevention and R2P.
  4. Work across the entire UN system to strengthen R2P.
  5. Improve interaction between the United Nations and regional and subregional institutions.
  6. Encourage states to accept and commit to their responsibility to protect, and build capacity for them to do so.
  7. Ensure the ongoing consideration of R2P in the General Assembly.

Now, five-plus years later, it is worth taking a step back and considering how the international community is faring. Unsurprisingly, the picture is mixed, but overall a considerable amount of progress has been made, though major challenges remain. The continuing critical task now is the practical one of making R2P a reality everywhere.

Progress on R2P

Significant progress has been made on the institutional and political fronts:

The United Nations has developed a variety of early warning and risk-assessment capabilities, including the Framework Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, which helps detect the risk of genocide and atrocity crimes; a program of regional quarterly review meetings of UN senior leaders to review assessments of risks and set policy priorities accordingly; and a more coherent system for activating comprehensive responses to imminent crises that may involve the commission of atrocities.

A well-established joint office for genocide prevention and R2P is increasingly integrating its work into the UN system.

A regular cycle of secretary-general’s reports and General Assembly dialogues have helped cement the principle and deepen consensus and shared understanding within the UN system.

So successful has this latter process been that several experts and many member states now argue that these cycles have exhausted their utility and should give way to a more formal set of processes.

In addition, one crucial institutional development was not anticipated: the embrace of R2P by the UN Security Council. In 2010, the council was cautious and hesitant to embrace the R2P principle. However, since then, R2P has become an almost regular feature of the council’s deliberations and, more importantly, its resolutions. As of January 2016, the council had issued 43 resolutions referring to R2P. Such political progress was not anticipated in 2010.

A Positive Trajectory, Room for Improvement

Progress has been more mixed in generating more national ownership of the responsibility to protect, but the world is, nonetheless, on a positive trajectory. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of countries’ demonstrating their commitment to and ownership of R2P is their willingness to appoint a senior governmental official as national R2P focal point who helps the government strengthen policies to prevent mass atrocities. From modest beginnings in 2011, today more than a quarter of UN member states (51) have appointed R2P offiocials and committed themselves to a global network of focal points. Other states have preferred to focus on regional initiatives, such as the Latin American Network for Genocide Prevention and the Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes network that includes several more UN member states.

Likewise, progress toward working across the UN system to strengthen R2P has continued, albeit unevenly. On the one hand, thanks to a combination of outreach by the joint office for genocide prevention and R2P, the Framework Analysis for Atrocity Crimes and early warning assessments, and the secretary-general’s Human Rights Up Front action plan, UN bodies are increasingly building atrocity prevention considerations into their policy planning and program designs. On the other hand, this progress remains inconsistent across the system. The secretary-general has also stopped short of articulating a clear and actionable strategy for overcoming these inconsistencies throughout the UN system.

Limited Success

That leaves two areas where progress has been more limited: (1) improved interaction between the UN and regional/subregional institutions, and (2) strengthened capacity to act in a timely and decisive manner in response to atrocities.

Perhaps the least amount of action has been toward improving partnerships with regional arrangements with respect to implementing R2P, but the signs are that this is becoming a key priority. Experience over the past decade teaches that international action is most effective when the United Nations and regional organizations act collaboratively. Yet, although the United Nations has developed strategic partnerships with a number of regional organizations, atrocity prevention and the protection of vulnerable populations have not been key areas of focus. As a result, responses to new crises remain ad hoc and selective. In his 2015 report, the secretary-general promised to ensure that the United Nations and its regional partners will incorporate R2P considerations into their strategies, thus sending a clear signal of intent to address this issue.

Finally, the international community’s failure to respond in a timely and decisive manner to the crises in Syria, Sri Lanka, and Yemen, in particular, and also the global crisis of displacement and the rise of atrocities by violent extremists, show that much more needs to be done in this area.

To be fair, the overall picture of responsiveness is moving in the right direction. Since 2005, the Security Council has become both more likely to respond to atrocity crimes and much more likely to emphasize protection in its response than it once was. However, there is a clear need for fresh thinking about how to respond more effectively in the most challenging of situations and, of course, a need for improved practice.

Challenges and Recommendations

The international community and UN leaders need to think about how to improve the Security Council’s decision-making processes so that the council acts in a way that is more aligned with its R2P responsibilities. There are a number of initiatives in that regard, including a push for the council to refrain from using its veto in atrocity response circumstances and Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” initiative, which suggests R2P could be strengthened by adding additional principles, specifically related to military intervention, in order to counter the perception that R2P could be used for any purpose other than protecting civilians.

But the international community also needs to effectively implement R2P mandates that already exist. In the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere, UN missions face major challenges and have not always proven themselves capable of protecting civilians from atrocity crimes—though civilians fare much better in regions where peacekeepers are deployed than in comparable regions where they are not. The challenges here involve generating action earlier, building and maintaining consensus, and ensuring that the Security Council’s demands are supported with the political will, strategy, and resources needed to implement them.

It is here that the challenge for the next decade lies. Having made progress on the political, conceptual, and institutional fronts, the world faces the challenge of making R2P a lived reality for all the world’s vulnerable populations.


Alex J. Bellamy is professor of peace and conflict studies and director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland, Australia.