A follow-up to the “right to intervene”, initiated by Bernard Kouchner and Mario Bettati, the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) was coined in the 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005.
In September 2005, at the largest gathering of Heads of State and Government in history, UN Member States adopted a document which clearly sets out the international community’s, and particularly the Security Council’s “responsibility to protect” when a State is unable or unwilling to protect its population from the most serious crimes (see paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document).
The members of the UN recognized that each State has a duty to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, but it is the international community’s subsidiary responsibility, within the framework of the UN, to protect populations from these four crimes.
The responsibility to protect (R2P) is a broad concept which is based on the responsibility of States to protect their own populations; it outlines the possible actions by the international community in terms of providing assistance and strengthening the capacity of States, and lays the framework for a resolute response by the international community to crises. The strategy focuses on the importance of prevention, at the same time as reaffirming that in the most serious cases, the international community’s responsibility to protect can take the form of coercive military intervention, based on a decision by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.
139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.
140. We fully support the mission of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide.
The responsibility to protect at the Security Council and the General Assembly
Since 2005, when all Member States acknowledged their collective responsibility to protect populations, the Security Council has referred to the responsibility to protect in six resolutions:
— resolution 1674 (2006) and Resolution 1894 (2009), which established the Security Council’s regulatory framework on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts; they reaffirmed the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document;
— resolution 1706 (2006) on the situation in Darfur; it also refers to the relevant provisions of the 2005 document;
— resolution 1975 (2011) on the situation on Côte d’Ivoire. It reaffirms "the primary responsibility of each State to protect civilians".
On 14 September 2009 the General Assembly adopted by consensus its first resolution on R2P (Resolution A/RES/63/308). The text was introduced by Guatemala and cosponsored by 67 countries including all the members of the European Union.
This resolution recalls the 2005 World Summit outcome document, in which heads of State and Government unanimously asserted the principle of the responsibility to protect, and takes note of the report of the Secretary General in January 2009 (see below).
Work of the Secretariat and of the Special Advisers
— Edward Luck has been UN Secretary-General Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect since February 2008. He works closely with the Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Francis Deng, and his team. Their evaluation and oversight role is aimed at strengthening the early warning mechanisms within the framework of mass atrocity prevention.
The two Special Advisors issued a joint statement on 29 December 2010 with respect to the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. They reminded all parties of their responsibility to protect all persons in Côte d’Ivoire, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality or religion. (See press release). Similarly, on 22 February 2011, they expressed their concerns regarding the reports of mass violence in Libya and reiterated the commitments undertaken by the heads of State and Government at the 2005 World Summit (See press release ).
— On 14 July 2010, the Secretary-General submitted a report to the General Assembly on “Early warning, assessment and the responsibility to protect.” This report recommends strengthening the mechanisms for sharing and analyzing information received and for improving the early warning mechanisms. On 9 August 2010, the General Assembly held an informal interactive dialogue with representatives of civil society on this issue. The Secretary-General submitted his first report on R2P in January 2009 where he laid out the concept of the three pillars of R2P.
The protection responsibilities of the State
(a) Pillar one is the enduring responsibility of the State to protect its populations, whether nationals or not, from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement. The latter, I would underscore, is critical to effective and timely prevention strategies. The declaration by the Heads of State and Government in paragraph 138 of the Summit Outcome that “we accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it” is the bedrock of the responsibility to protect. That responsibility, they affirmed, lies first and foremost with the State. The responsibility derives both from the nature of State sovereignty and from the pre-existing and continuing legal obligations of States, not just from the relatively recent enunciation and acceptance of the responsibility to protect;
International assistance and capacity-building
(b) Pillar two is the commitment of the international community to assist States in meeting those obligations. It seeks to draw on the cooperation of Member States, regional and subregional arrangements, civil society and the private sector, as well as on the institutional strengths and comparative advantages of the United Nations system. Too often ignored by pundits and policymakers alike, pillar two is critical to forging a policy, procedure and practice that can be consistently applied and widely supported. Prevention, building on pillars one and two, is a key ingredient for a successful strategy for the responsibility to protect;
Timely and decisive response
(c) Pillar three is the responsibility of Member States to respond collectively in a timely and decisive manner when a State is manifestly failing to provide such protection. Though widely discussed, pillar three is generally understood too narrowly. As demonstrated by the successful bilateral, regional and global efforts to avoid further bloodshed in early 2008 following the disputed election in Kenya, if the international community acts early enough, the choice need not be a stark one between doing nothing or using force. A reasoned, calibrated and timely response could involve any of the broad range of tools available to the United Nations and its partners. These would include pacific measures under Chapter VI of the Charter, coercive ones under Chapter VII and/or collaboration with regional and subregional arrangements under Chapter VIII. The process of determining the best course of action, as well as of implementing it, must fully respect the provisions, principles and purposes of the Charter. In accordance with the Charter, measures under Chapter VII must be authorized by the Security Council. The General Assembly may exercise a range of related functions under Articles 10 to 14, as well as under the “Uniting for peace” process set out in its resolution 377 (V). Chapters VI and VIII specify a wide range of pacific measures that have traditionally been carried out either by intergovernmental organs or by the Secretary-General. Either way, the key to success lies in an early and flexible response, tailored to the specific needs of each situation.
The responsibility to protect and the International Criminal Court
Implementing the responsibility to protect populations against the most egregious crimes by preventing and punishing such acts is an essential part of the fierce struggle against impunity. Impunity is being fought to protect populations against future massacres by deterring the use of violence, and holding those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and massive human rights violations accountable for their crimes.
International criminal justice has a prominent role to play in bringing the main perpetrators of the most serious crimes to trial when national jurisdictions fail to do so. With the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the UN International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and the mixed tribunals in Sierra Leone and in Cambodia, the international community demonstrated that it does not intend let such crimes go unpunished.
The Rome Statute (1998) authorizes the ICC to prosecute the perpetrators of three of the four of the most serious crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes) cited by United Nations Member States under the “responsibility to protect” in Articles 138-139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome, all of which fall under the ICC’s jurisdiction.
In resolution 1970 (February 2011) on the situation in Libya, the Security Council, "considering that the widespread and systematic attacks (...) may amount to crimes against humanity", and "recalling the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population" decided to refer the situation in Libya since 15 February 2011 to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
Learn more about the International Criminal Jurisdictions on our website.
23 July 2009 - General Assembly: the responsibility to protect - Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Deputy Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations
14 January 2009 - Debate on the Protection of Civilians at the Security Council – Statement by Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations
30 March 2011 - Resolution 1975 of the Security Council - The situation on Côte d’Ivoire
17 March 2011 - Resolution 1973 of the Security Council - The situation on Libya
26 February 2011 - Resolution 1970 of the Security Council - The situation on Libya
14 July 2010 - Report of the Secretary General - Early warning, assessment and the responsibility to protect
16 November 2009 - Resolution 1894 of the Security Council - Protection of civilians in armed conflict
14 January 2009 – Statement by the President of the Security Council – Protection of civilians
12 January 2009 - Report of the Secretary-General: Implementing the responsibility to protect
31 August 2006 -Security Council resolution 1706 – The situation in Darfur
28 April 2006 - Security Council resolution 1674 - contains the first official Security Council reference to the responsibility to protect
16 September 2005 – World Summit Outcome Document
Website of the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide