The Concept of Responsibility to Protect

The Concept of Responsibility to Protect

The concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) imposes on states the obligation to protect their populations according the “human security” concept against massive human rights violations such as massacres, ethnic cleansing, and violations of women’s rights such as sexualized violence in war and mass rapes. The concept of “Responsibility to Protect” was first used in a report by that name, published in 2001 by experts of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which was convened at the initiative of the Canadian Government. State sovereignty, according to the commission, includes obligations to protect – i.e., the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react, and the responsibility to rebuild.

The “High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change,” established by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in his efforts to reform the UN, subscribed to this concept and recommended in its report, published in 2004, that military intervention only be used “as a last resort, in the event of genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing or serious violations of international humanitarian law which sovereign governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent.” The High Level Panel expressed the view that only the UN Security Council can authorize military intervention, and only according to the following criteria:

1) All diplomatic, political, and economic means for averting conflict must be exhausted (“last resort”).

2) The “seriousness of threat” must then be assessed to determine whether the use of force is appropriate.

3) The intervention must be appropriate to the degree of the threat and may not have other intentions (“proper purpose”).

4) Robust peacekeeping missions must be suitably equipped so as to be able to actually attain their assigned goal (“proportional means”).

5) Military operations may not lead to worse consequences than non-intervention by the international community (“balances of consequences”).

Measured against these criteria, the interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan would not have been justified. There is only one case that meets all the rules: the genocide in Rwanda. 

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan incorporated these proposals into his report on UN reform (In Larger Freedom). The heads of state present at the 2005 World Summit on the Millennium Development Goals also adopted the concept – but without the five Measured against these criteria, the interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan would not have been justified. There is only one case that meets all the rules: the genocide in Rwanda. Measured against these criteria, the interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan would not have been justified. There is only one case that meets all the rules: the genocide in Rwanda. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan incorporated these proposals into his report on UN reform (In Larger Freedom). The heads of state present at the 2005 World Summit on the Millennium Development Goals also adopted the concept – but without the five criteria for military intervention. At the beginning of 2008, new UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appointed US law professor Edward Luck as Special Advisor for the Responsibility to Protect. The same year, at a presentation at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Luck indicated that he, too, wanted the concept to be understood very restrictively: A military intervention is justified only as a means of last resort in the case of genocide; his focus clearly is on prevention. 

The newly developed norm of international law, however, is not without inconsistencies. On the one hand, it refers explicitly to the non-governmental concept of “human security”; yet the UN Security Council, whose five permanent members still understand security not as human security but as state security, are permitted to decide on military intervention. So far, they have always acted according to national interests and not according to how intensely a population is being attacked. The Chinese government, for example, has frequently prevented a stronger crackdown in Darfur because of its oil interests. Like the Russian government, it does not support the
concept of responsibility to protect.

With or without “R2P,” the danger remains that interested states will justify military interventions on (allegedly) humanitarian grounds. Thelma Ekiyor, Executive Director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute in Accra, stated at an international symposium on R2P in November 2007 in Bonn that in Africa the US-led “War on Terror” has had the effect that the responsibility to protect is in danger of being held hostage by the US.

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