Mass Violence and Atrocities | Selected Article

R2P Is Dead, Long Live R2P

November 2013

The Future of the Responsibility to Protect

The brutal legacy of mass murder in the 20th century gave birth to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle in the hope that an ounce of prevention could stop the need for a pound of cure. Countries around the world vowed there was a shared obligation to protect the defenseless. Despite misperceptions over its nature, R2P is about preventing harm to people, not using force.

The recently appointed UN special adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, Jennifer Welsh, answered our questions about the future of R2P, what the crisis in Syria is doing to the doctrine, and how to better institutionalize the principle.

Stanley Center (SC): What are your main priorities for the R2P doctrine going forward?

Jennifer Welsh: My two main priorities over the coming year are to first, advance Pillar Two of the principle  in terms of both clarifying how states’ capacities to protect can be enhanced through international assistance and identifying particular mechanisms that need to be created or reformed to better provide that assistance, and second, work to embed the principle more firmly within the processes and structures of the United Nations, particularly in terms of human rights, conflict prevention, and protection of civilians. On a more general level, my goal is to work collaboratively with the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide to continue to build the capacity of our joint office to raise awareness about potential or actual atrocity situations and to catalyze action in response.

SC: Ever since the military intervention in Libya in 2011, many in the international community have sounded the death of R2P. What are your thoughts?

Welsh: The criticisms leveled about the military operation in Libya did lead to constructive discussion about the principle of R2P—especially the need for those who act militarily on behalf of the United Nations Security Council to remain accountable. But it is important to remember that R2P is about much more than military intervention, even under Pillar Three. There are tools the international community can employ that do not involve the use of force. I think the Libya case was also an important reminder of the role of regional organizations in operationalizing the principle of R2P. Post-Libya, we have not necessarily seen a retreat from states’ commitments to the protection of their populations, or from the Security Council’s willingness to acknowledge the principle—as it has done in subsequent resolutions.

SC: How has violence in the Arab Spring, including what’s happening in Syria, affected the R2P principle?

Welsh: The crisis in Syria and its staggering human cost reveal yet again how important it is for regional and international actors to take preventive measures more seriously, so as to avoid continuing deterioration of conditions for populations. It also reminds us that the Responsibility to Protect is borne by a wide variety of actors, not just the Security Council. There are many actors who have indeed attempted to fulfill their protection responsibilities—including the UN Human Rights Council, whose Commission of Inquiry has endeavored to provide a fact base for decision making and accountability; neighboring countries which have accepted refugees; and states and organizations that have applied sanctions. Moreover, the UN Secretary-General has continually and consistently called upon actors, especially states in the Security Council, to fulfill their responsibilities by reaching a consensus on ways to bring an end to the violence.

More broadly, it is crucial to point out that whether military intervention occurs or not is not an appropriate “test” for the effectiveness of the Responsibility to Protect. The principle involves a host of noncoercive and coercive tools. Moreover, as per the Outcome Document of the UN World Summit in 2005, states have declared and accepted that decisions on the use of force, which involve a myriad of considerations, not just the Responsibility to Protect, will occur on a case-by-case basis.

SC: There has been a call by some states for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to give up their veto vote in cases of mass atrocities. Is there a way to make that happen? Do you think it is a realistic call?

Welsh: The Security Council is an important actor in authorizing some of the more coercive measures of the third pillar of R2P. In this respect, striving to ensure that action is both timely and effective is the responsibility of all members of the council. History has shown us that when the council can act in a concerted and prompt fashion, positive outcomes can be achieved. A willingness to forego the use of the veto in mass atrocity situations could therefore be a positive step, but we should not necessarily see this, in itself, as being the “magic” solution to bringing about council unity. There will often be, appropriately, different views on the legitimacy of various courses of action, especially those involving the use of force. Those views must be heard and digested by the council in its efforts to find a common path. Those states suggesting changes to the use of the veto are important players, and their leadership could make a difference. But the modalities of this change still need to be fleshed out and debated further. Reform of council working procedures has occurred before, so there is precedent.

SC: Given the informal nature of the current UN dialogue on R2P, do you think it is time to consider R2P as a formal agenda item, and what would be the benefits of doing this?

Welsh: Our office will be led by states’ views on this matter, and we are able and willing to respond to their preferences for how to take R2P forward within the UN. Placing the annual discussion of R2P on the formal agenda of the General Assembly [GA] does have positive benefits, in terms of indicating commitment to the principle and integrating it with other important goals of the GA, such as development and human rights. That said, the informal dialogues which have been held have been instrumental in advancing the concept and refining the implementation plan developed by the secretary-general in 2009. Formalizing the informal dialogue would require some changes to what has been done in the past and might require adding more time to the discussion and treatment of R2P, but we are now at a moment in the principle’s evolution where this could be justified.

Pillar Two addresses the commitment of the international community to provide assistance to states in building capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity; and to assist those that are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.

Pillar Three focuses on the responsibility of the international community to take timely and decisive action to prevent and halt genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity when a state is manifestly failing to protect its population.