Alasdair McKay

12 April 2019

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This primer explains the Responsibility to Protect concept, including its origins, applications and critiques.


April 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide and closely follows the 20th anniversary of the NATO-led intervention in Kosovo, two cases which highlighted the dilemmas of how to act in the face of humanitarian crises. While Rwanda showed the heavy human costs of inaction, Kosovo asked difficult questions about where the responsibility and legitimacy to respond to mass atrocities resided.   

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was created as an attempt to solve these problems. It was devised by the Canadian Government’s International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in its 2001 report and the essence of this document was affirmed by states at the 2005 World Summit in New York.

Decades on from Rwanda and Kosovo, R2P has become the principal framework for considering policies in response to atrocity crimes, although military interventions based upon R2P remain very rare. Though not without its critics, R2P is often characterised as a norm with a global consensus. However, this consensus may be becoming increasingly fragile as the re-emergence of populist nationalism and geopolitical strains has seen many states retreat from domestic and international human rights commitments.  


Key points

  • R2P is a norm which stemmed from the humanitarian intervention debate of the 1990s. It is an effort to resolve tensions between humanitarian need and the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference that still define the international system.
  • R2P recalibrates the concept of sovereignty to entail states having a responsibility to protect their citizens’ human rights. Should states fail in their duties, the responsibility is transferred to the international community which is then tasked with protecting the populations in question.   
  • R2P is ‘narrow but deep’ in its approach to atrocity prevention. It aims specifically to prevent four ‘mass atrocity crimes’: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
  • R2P thus has a basis in international law, but it is not a binding legal agreement. Instead it is a collective pledge to honour past commitments made by states to prevent atrocity crimes.
  • Invocation of R2P to justify actions by the UN and other international actors has been frequent but has become more controversial since the 2011 UN-mandated operation in Libya.
  • R2P has evolved since its inception in the 2001 ICISS report and is somewhat different to the original blueprint. It continues to attract controversy and alternative proposals, not least from states in the Global South.

Image of Florida Holocaust Memorial Resource statue by Thomas Hawk. 

About the author

Alasdair McKay is ORG's Senior Communications Officer. 

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