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An Introduction to the Responsibility to Protect

Recognizing the failure to adequately respond to the most heinous crimes known to humankind, world leaders made a historic commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity at the United Nations (UN) 2005 World Summit. This commitment, entitled the Responsibility to Protect, stipulates that:

1. The State carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

2. The international community has a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility.

3. The international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.

Since the end of the Second World War, an international effort has been undertaken to protect civilians in armed conflict and prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. In 1948 the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations, and entered into force three years later. The Convention was the steppingstone in the international community’s attempt to ensure the horrors witnessed during the Holocaust would never occur again. However, the resounding promise of “Never Again” would prove to be hollow. 

The end of the 20th Century marked a change in the nature of armed conflict: large inter-state wars were replaced by violent internal conflicts, where the vast majority of casualties are now civilians. The genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia demonstrated massive failures by the international community to prevent mass atrocities. Thus, near the end of the 1990’s there was a recognized need to shift the debate about crisis prevention and response: the security of the community and the individual, not only the state, must be priorities for national and international policies.

1. International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)
The term Responsibility to Protect was first presented in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in December 2001. The Commission had been formed in response to Kofi Annan's question of when the international community must intervene for humanitarian purposes. Building on Francis Deng's idea of sovereignty as responsibility, the Commission addressed the question of when state sovereignty - a fundamental principle of international law - must yield to protection against the most egregious violations of humanitarian and international law, including genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. View a Summary of the ICISS Report.

The timing of this reports' release in December 2001 was devastating to its initial reception. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the international debate shifted away from consideration of measures to prevent genocide and mass atrocity toward measures for the prevention and preemption of terrorist activities and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, premised in part on an argument of humanitarian intervention, was even more destructive to the advancement of the RtoP agenda. The invasion heightened concerns that RtoP would be used to further erode the sovereignty of smaller developing countries.

However, although support for RtoP was limited in the initial period after the release of the ICISS report, ongoing humanitarian disasters, including the failure to protect the people of Darfur, signaled that more needed to be done by the international community as a whole to respond to genocide and other threats against populations.

2. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Promotes RtoP
In September 2003, the Secretary-General called for Member States to strengthen the UN to better advance development, security, and the protection of human rights. In recognition of the urgent need to address the UN's failures to respond to genocide, the Secretary-General challenged Member States to include protection from genocide as part of this UN reform agenda. The Secretary-General then formed the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change to report on how the UN should confront the greatest security threats of the 21st century. In December, 2004, the High-level Panel released its report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility. Included in the report's 101 recommendations on strengthening the international security framework was an endorsement of an international responsibility to protect populations from grave threats.

After consultations with governments and UN officials, and with input from many civil society organizations, the Secretary-General published his own report entitled In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All. Similar to the High-level Panel, the Secretary-General emphasized the need of governments to take action against threats of massive human rights violations and other large scale acts of violence against civilians. He called on governments to embrace the Responsibility to Protect, emphasizing that while it is first and foremost the individual governments responsibility to protect its population, the responsibility shifts to the international community when the state is unable or unwilling to protect their citizens. He also emphasized that the international community must use a range of measures to protect populations, which could include diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, and as a last resort may include the use of military force.

3. The AU's Constitutive Act and the Ezulwini Consensus
Meanwhile, in 2000, African nations were working to enshrine the principles of R2P within the founding Charter of the African Union (AU).  First, the Constitutive Act defines the promotion of peace, security and stability and the promotion and protection of “human and peoples’ rights” as core obejective of the Union. Second, it identifies “respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance”, "respect for the sanctity of human life”, and “condemnation and rejection of impunity” among its core values. Most significantly, Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act states that it is the “right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” This important clause conveys one end of the full R2P spectrum - military intervention - but the Charter shows the commitment of African Nations to protecting populations from atrocity, even if infringement on the sovereignty of its members is required.

The report, known as the ”Ezulwini Consensus”, was expressed at the African Union’s 7th Extraordinary Session of the Executive Council of 1-8 March 2005, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In its report, the AU embraced the Responsibility to Protect and recognized the authority of the Security Council to decide on the use of force in situations of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. It also insisted on the need for an empowerment of regional organizations to take action in such cases. In 2005, with RtoP as part of the proposed recommendations for improving the UN, the African Union responded by its own evaluation of th proposed reforms. 

4. 2005 World Summit
As the UN debated major reforms of its human rights system, the idea of committing to an international Responsibility to Protect gained support from many governments and civil society organizations from all regions. Southern leadership at the 2005 World Summit was central. Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Rwanda, and South Africa, were some of the influential governments insisting on a meaningful commitment to the Responsibility to Protect. The leadership of these governments allowed for the support of many other members from the global South. In the end, the historic commitment was finally made at the World Summit in September 2005. In

Paragraphs 138-139 of the World Summit Outcome Document, Heads of State and government agreed to the following:

That each individual state has the primary responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. And it is also a responsibility for prevention of these crimes

That the international community should encourage or assist states to exercise this responsibility.

The international community has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations threatened by these crimes. When a state manifestly fails in its protection responsibilities, and peaceful means are inadequate, the international community must take stronger measures, including collective use of force authorized by the Security Council under Chapter VII.

5. Developments at the United Nations Since 2005
a) Thematic developments
Since the 2005 World Summit, there have been several important normative advancements, including the Security Council's unanimous adoption of Resolution 1674 on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, which includes the first official Security Council reference to the Responsibility to Protect. The Security Council also passed Resolution 1706 authorizing the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops in Darfur, which referred to Resolution 1674 and paragraph 138 and 139 on the Responsibility to Protect in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. 

The new Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has also made two very important appointments: Mr. Francis Deng as Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and Mr. Edward Luck, Special Adviser to the Secretary General with a focus on the Responsibility to Protect. 

Unfortunately, there have also been some setbacks to the advancement of the RtoP agenda in the past three years. In January 2007, China and Russia vetoed a resolution on the situation in Burma, arguing that Burma did not pose a threat to international peace and security in the region, and that the internal affairs of the state did not have a place within the Security Council. Instead, they suggested that situation in Burma should be taken up by the Human Rights Council. The referral of the situation in Burma to the Human Rights Council raised questions about the commitment of some Security Council members in addressing mass atrocity crimes within the Security Council. Another example of resistance by Security Council members to apply RtoP in specific situations was in the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1769, which authorized the deployment a hybrid UN-AU force for Darfur. While it was an important step towards providing much needed protection to civilians, it did not refer specifically to the Responsibility to Protect. As compared to the earlier Resolution 1674, this limited endorsement was disappointing to the community of civil society and policymakers working to advance the norm.

In addition, opposition from outside the Council came during the General Assembly's 5th Committee bi-annual budget debate late last year, where the Committee declined funding for the office of the new Special Adviser on RtoP. This was partially due to procedural matters but also because some Members argued that the Responsibility to Protect had actually never been agreed to as a norm during the World Summit. On 21 February 2008, the office of Secretary-General Ban announced the appointment of Edward Luck as a Special Adviser with a focus on the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. This revised title (the earlier one was Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect) reflected the resistance to his position from some Member States.

b) Focus on the Protection of Civilians in Libya & Cote d’Ivoire
Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya
Following a range of earlier attempts to implement peaceful measures, such as diplomatic incentives, asset freezes, arms embargo, and ICC referral, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011, approving a no-fly-zone, calling for an immediate cease-fire and tightening sanctions on the Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya.
This was a follow-up to Resolution 1970, which first called upon Libya’s “responsibility to protect” by referring the situation to the ICC and imposing initial financial sanctions as well as an arms embargo. Language from Resolution 1973 called the enforcement of a no-fly zone and for “all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat or attack…. while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form.” The Resolution condemned the Libyan government for failing to comply with international law and for allowing gross violations of human rights and attacks that may amount to crimes against humanity. 
Security Council Resolution 1975 on Côte d’Ivoire
In response to the escalating, post-election violence against the population of Côte d’Ivoire, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1975 on 30 March 2011. The Resolution condemned the gross human rights violations committed by supporters of both Gbagbo and President Ouattara stating, “the attacks currently taking place in Côte d’Ivoire against the civilian population could amount to crimes against humanity.” The resolution cited “the primary responsibility of each State to protect civilians,” called for the immediate transfer of power to Ouattara, and reaffirmed the mandate of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) to “use all necessary means to protect life and property.”
Resolution 1975 mandated targeted sanctions against Gbagbo and his close supporters, while reaffirming the UN mandate in Côte d’Ivoire to protect civilians and the use of all necessary means to protect them, while preventing the use of heavy weapons. In an effort to protect the people of Côte d’Ivoire from further atrocities, a military operation began on 4 April 2011 and Gbagbo’s hold on power ended on 11 April when he was arrested by Ouattara’s forces after days of fighting with UNOCI and the French military.
6. The Report of the Secretary General: Implementing the Responsibility to Protect
On 12 January 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a report entitled Implementing the Responsibility to Protect(RtoP). The report is the first comprehensive document from the UN Secretariat on the Responsibility to Protect, following Ban's stated commitment to turn the concept into policy. The Secretary General's report sets the tone and the direction for the discussion on the subject at the UN. The report proposes a terminological framework for understanding the Responsibility to Protect and outlines measures and actors involved in implementing the three-pillar approach, first outlined in the Secretary General's July 2008 Berlin Speech. The three pillars are:

- Pillar One stresses that States have the primary responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
- 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 assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.
- Pillar Three focuses on the responsibility of international community to take timely and decisive action to prevent and halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity when a State is anifestly failing to protect its populations.

Importantly, the Secretary-General urges the General Assembly to consider the strategy for implementing RtoP as prescribed in the report. It also gives a particular attention to early warning, and introduces specific recommendations regarding a future proposal to create a joint-office between the Special Adviser with a focus on the Responsibility to Protect and the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. See our summary of the report
  The first resolution on the Responsibility to Protect was adopted by the General Assembly on 14 September 2009. The resolution (A/RES/63/308) was introduced by the delegation of Guatemala and was co-sponsored by 67 Member States. The GA took note of the report of the Secretary-General and of the "timely and productive" debate in the General Assembly, and decided to continue its consideration of RtoP.

 View the summary of statements on the adoption of the resolution. 

8. UN General Assembly Debates & Dialogues on RtoP

 2009 General Assembly Debate on the Responsibility to Protect
The General Assembly Debate on RtoP started on 23 July 2009 and continued the full two days of 24 July and 28 July 2009. On the occasion, 92 Member States (and 2 observers) spoke on RtoP where they agreed through the adoption of A/RES/63/308 to continue consideration of the norm. Click here to view statements and media coverage on the event.  View the Coalition's report on the July Debate and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect's assessment of the debate.

 2010 General Assembly Interactive Dialogue on Early Warning, Assessment and the Responsibility to Protect
On 9 August 9 2010 the General Assembly (GA) held an informal interactive dialogue on Early Warning, Assessment and the Responsibility to Protect, in response to July 14 Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s report on the issue. The dialogue took place in follow up to the July 2009 GA debate on the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), where Member States agreed (resolution A/RES/63/308) to continue consideration of RtoP. A total of 42 Member States, 2 representatives from regional organizations and 2 representatives from civil society spoke at the dialogue. View our summary of the dialogue and permanent missions’ statement. View our summary of the Secretary-General’s report.

 2011 General Assembly Informal Interactive Dialogue on the Role of Regional and Sub-regional Arrangements in Implementing the Responsibility to Protect 
The General Assembly (GA) held an informal interactive dialogue on Tuesday, 12 July 2011 on ‘the responsibility to protect and the role of regional and sub-regional arrangements’ in response to the 27 June report of the Secretary General on the issue.  On the occasion of the third meeting of the GA on RtoP, a total of 43 Member States, 3 representatives from regional organizations and 4 representatives from civil society spoke at the dialogue.  View our summary of the dialogue and permanent missions’ statements. View our summary of the Secretary-General’s report.

 2012 General Assembly Informal, Interactive Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response
On 5 September 2012, the General Assembly held a dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect: Timely and decisive response, following the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon release of his fourth Report on 20 August 2012 on the same theme. The meeting was well attended as 56 Member States, one regional organization and two civil society organizations gave interventions. View the Coalition's summaries of the report and dialogue.

 2013 General Assembly Informal, Interactive Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention
Following the release of the Secretary-General’s August 2013 report entitled “Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention”, the UNGA held its fifth dialogue on 11 September 2013. Sixty-eight governments, one regional arrangement, and two civil society organizations participated. Eight of those states participated for the first time. View the Coalition's summary of the report and dialogue.





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