Is the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Doctrine Still Relevant?

The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once

Is the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Doctrine Still Relevant?

Tehmina Habib


The rise of humanitarianism and the international community is the product of the long festering Cold War. In the 1990s, the global political landscape was overwhelmed with the idea that human beings matter more as compared to state sovereignty and this notion became the foundation of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine. The R2P aims to promote international action against crime against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. Its core philosophy encompasses the idea that sovereign states have the responsibility to protect people from violence leading to genocide, infringement of human rights and mass atrocities beyond the borders, anywhere in the world. Inadvertently, the twenty-first century witnessed a rise in foreign meddling in domestic affairs of weak and underdeveloped countries. Moreover, the international community and flag-bearers of humanitarianism failed to respond in cases of Kashmir, Libya, Syria and Rohingya genocide, which puts a question mark on the aims of R2P, and exposes the hidden paradox that has generated a heated debated on the use of controversial R2P doctrine. This article will focus on the relevance and credibility of the R2P doctrine since its adoption.

What is R2P Doctrine?

The high-level UN World Summit of 2005 marked the beginning of the R2P doctrine as a product of the post-Cold War era while challenging the ideas of state sovereignty, independence and humanitarianism after the end of the Cold War. The idea was borne out after the failure of international community in playing a role in Rwanda and Yugoslavia during the 1990s. In 1999, Kofi Annan, the then-Secretary-General of the United Nations, highlighted this failure in the wake of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and Srebrenica genocide of 1995, and requested to redraw the traditional concept of sovereignty. Mr Annan asked the UN member states if the international community would follow the conventional notion of sovereignty, how it would fight against incidents like Rwanda and Srebrenica. In response, the Canadian government formulated the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). In 2001, ICISS released a report entitled “The Responsibility to Protect” which clearly defines the parameters when one state can interfere in the sovereignty of another. It entailed the philosophy that if a state failed to protect its people against human rights violation or indulged in such violations or genocide, the responsibility to safeguard them will be transferred to the international community. During World Summit 2005, the majority of world leaders showed consensus and adopted the doctrine.

The R2P doctrine has three main pillars:

  1. Every sovereign state is responsible for protecting its people against genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
  2. The international community is responsible for encouraging, holding accountable and supporting the state in fulfilling its duty.
  3. If the state failed to establish its writ, the responsibility to protect would shift to the international community.

The United Nations has put utmost efforts to portray R2P as a connecting point between state and individual security. Critics of UN’s role in the adoption of doctrine, argue that military intervention has been taken as a sole part of R2P, which questions its moral legitimacy and ‘apolitical’ character.

Epistemological Debate on R2P

The proponents of R2P support this doctrine on the premise of the importance of humanity beyond state sovereignty and territorial integrity. According to them, when a sovereign state fails to protect its civilians, it loses legitimacy to rule over the territory. The UN resolution to intervene in Libya orchestrated international consensus on the use of R2P against any state. Advocates of R2P claim that the doctrine has gained consensus over time, showing upward trajectory and legitimacy in the international community; however, the reality is otherwise.

Besides this school of thought, a number of members of epistemic community are sceptical and show their reservations against the conceptualization and implementation of R2P. The epistemic community related to R2P includes academia working on violence prevention and intervention, policymakers, international organizations practicing humanitarianism and the media. Among the critics, social scientists with the post-colonial approach take a firm position against R2P and consider it a form of neo-imperialism, which has been created to justify interventionist actions in contemporary world politics. It establishes the same power politics, unequal international system and license to interfere in the domestic affairs of other states. Some social scientists call these humanitarian interventions as neo-imperialistic tools to impose their hegemony over other countries.

History of the world is replete with the examples of intervention by rich countries in weaker countries on different pretexts, ranging from intervention of Britain in the Indian Subcontinent through East India Company to intervention in Australia as saviours of mankind. They count humanitarianism as an added feature of neo-imperialism in contemporary world politics and argue that ‘the politics of compassion is the politics of inequality and politics of domination’.

The Pacifist advocates criticize R2P on the grounds that it allows use of force and violence in pursuit of humanitarianism and it has initiated a new era of militarism, instead of promoting global peace. The pluralists criticize R2P on the premise of its implications as, according to them, the frequent use of R2P will shift its nature from discretionary norm to an obligatory norm with a stratified form of sovereignty, giving hegemonic privilege to western powers.

R2P vis-à-vis Law & Morality

The R2P is a product of an affair between morality and realpolitik, without legal backing. In cases where the law is absent, morality takes over. Furthermore, the interplay of morality and power manifests “might is right” that is why the US always finds a solution to achieve its stalemate objectives. This fact that the permanent members of the UNSC have the authority to implement R2P against any country for strategic and political reasons is a dangerous premise. The basis of this doctrine is morality which can become a tool in the hands of power abusers, and the intervening states are not answerable to anyone as their morality cannot be questioned. It serves the real-world balance of power instead of translating its true meaning.Rotmann_et_al_2014_Major-Powers-and-the-Contested-Evolution-of-a-Responsibility-to-Protect

The R2P is aligned neither with the concept of realpolitik nor with the fundamental principles of the UN, which inherently recognize the sovereignty of all member states. There is a dichotomy in the exercise of R2P by UNSC; wherein Libya’s case, it was applicable, whereas, in the Syrian situation, it didn’t make due to disagreement by one of the permanent members. It reveals that the national interest of permanent members is supreme and is beyond R2P and humanitarianism. Morality is a fluid concept and applied according to the interests of influential parties. R2P is an inspiration depending on the will and discretion of sovereign state members of the UNSC. In theory, it is a significant concept for the peaceful world, in practice, it is, however, riddled with too many contradictions in its application and interpretation.

Implementation of R2P

  1. Libya

After the adoption of this doctrine, intervention in Libya was the first step taken by the UNSC. The civil unrest in Libya provided an opportunity to translate the promise of R2P into action. That was the first time in UN history when its Security Council authorized the launch of military operations without the consent of the Libyan government. NATO implemented the decision and overthrew the authoritarian regime in Libya for the reinstatement of fundamental and democratic rights of the people. The intervention in Libya is a successful invocation of R2P, although there was no humanitarian crisis or fear of genocide.

However, this intervention, unfortunately, could not produce good results for the Libyans. NATO forces aimed to topple the Gaddafi regime, and for that, civilian areas were massively bombarded, resulting in enormous casualties. These casualties created uproar around the world and questioned the purpose and vitality of intervention in Libya. Many social scientists and conflict experts label Libyan intervention as a failed attempt due to massive innocent civil casualties and the ensuing crisis of lawlessness, with several militias fighting against each other. Moreover, the support of NATO to rebels to overthrow the government is against the fundamental principles of the United Nations. Most importantly, the ICISS report says that while taking action under R2P, it is the responsibility to rebuild the state and provide every support to address all losses. But this aspect was gravely ignored.

  1. Crimea

Being a staunch supporter of state sovereignty, Russia predominantly has a negative outlook towards the application of R2P doctrine. Even Russia condemned the use of force against Libya and Syria. Russia has always discouraged the role of extra-regional actors in a country due to the Soviet experience. However, the crisis in Crimea—the the South of Ukraine—saw a U-turn in Russia’s stance over R2P. It shows that countries tailor their standards of morality and translation of R2P according to their own national interests. Russia claimed that extremist groups of Crimea were a threat to Russians citizens there. Further, Russia neither sought authorization from UNSC nor did it prove the seriousness of crisis threatening the population at large. Hence, Russia contradicted its traditional stance on R2P and launched military action in Crimea.  This action was taken in the pretext of the protection of Russian people trapped in Crimea. Syria qualifies the criteria to implement R2P to which Russia vetoed intervention in Syria and used the same argument while waging military intervention in Crimea exposes power politics in UNSC member countries over weak countries.

iii. Syria

The Syrian conflict is a harsh example where, in spite of the failure of the sovereign state in protecting civilians from massive atrocities, the international community failed to invoke R2P, and could not fulfil its humanitarian responsibility. Syria is burning for almost a decade; the Syrian government under the rule of Bashar al-Assad killed its own civilians in the name of war against rebels. This situation provides a threshold for the international community to invoke R2P against mass atrocities of Syrian civilians, but it was unable to get authorization from UNSC members. The major reason behind the failure of the international community is the contradiction between the protection of people and regime change as having done in the Libyan case. The Libya episode highlights the blurring line between regime change and humanitarian action to protect civilians. Due to the Libyan case, the members got confused and were reluctant to use R2P in the case of Syria. Thereby, Russia and China stood against the R2P to the extent that Russia used veto for the first time.1__qCfR4-nityu_MdUzBDN-w

The proponents of R2P claim that Russia’s economic and strategic interests in the region—arms deals and the Russian naval facility at a Syrian port and Russia coalition with the Assad regime are the factors behind the veto against intervention in Syria. Hence, the argument that UNSC decisions are political in nature and its members keep their interest supreme while making decisions, took strength, putting a question mark against the humanitarian character of the UN. Both countries, China and Russia, were not concerned about the destruction and massive killings in Syria. Their foremost interest was in extending their own economic, strategic, and political motives.

  1. Yemen

In 2015, Saudi Arabia decided to intervene in Yemen on the pretext of R2P. However, a formal resolution was never moved to seek the support of the UN. Riyadh just announced that it is launching a military operation in Yemen as a fulfilment of responsibility to protect Yemeni civilians and support the Yemeni government against terrorism of Houthi rebels. Saudi-led coalition was criticized a lot due to airstrikes on the civilian population, which resulted in 4,000 civilian casualties. The Western powers like the US, UK, and France also supported the Saudi-led coalition’s decision.  In a nutshell, it may be conceptualized in a way that R2P, in most cases, is used to protect the state’s own national and geopolitical interests. The humanitarian ground becomes a secondary issue.

  1. Kashmir

With reference of atrocities and genocide in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIJOK), the lack of applicability of R2P displays its moral corrosion within the international community. The Kashmiris in IIJOK are facing gross human rights violations by the Indian armed forces. India is applying systematic use of torture, pellet guns against civilians, and rape as a weapon of war. The Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Kashmir by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also confirms the manifestation of human rights violations on a massive scale, including lack of access to justice, administrative detention, excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances, restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, reprisals against human rights defenders and journalists, and sexual violence.merlin_157660446_eeceff08-99ed-468b-a363-0cca51a63820-superJumbo

Kashmir provides the field to global political governance to exercise R2P and humanitarian intervention. However, unfortunately, the major powers of the world have continued hush over the issue as their strategic interests are not involved. The United States’ strategic interests converge with India which they consider the lynchpin of its Indo-Pacific strategy. While Russia has always emphasized India and Pakistan to find a solution bilaterally, which displays its indifferent approach towards Kashmir Issue. China is the only UNSC permanent member that is playing an active role and has facilitated two UNSC meetings to resolve this crisis because the stable South Asian region is in the best interest of China.


Concluding the debate about the relevance and credibility of the doctrine of responsibility to protect, it would be appropriate to say that the creation of the R2P has introduced a significant promotion to the humanitarian cause. No one can deny the importance of such humanitarian intervention for a peaceful world, but the devil is in the details. The principles of the R2P doctrine are significant, but its application and interpretation have raised questions. Since its adoption, it has been observed that every case where R2P is invoked, somehow involves power politics. The problem lies in the normative nature of international law under which this doctrine works and its design is prone to misapplication. The implementation of R2P should be backed by law instead of morality as ‘moral standards’ is a fluid concept and changes with the situation. The R2P doctrine should be considered a progressive policy that the international community unanimously proceeds to critique, improve and ultimately get desired results. The strategic use of the R2P framework to justify certain diplomatic or military interventions underscores the pitfalls of vague principles in international politics. The R2P doctrine is still in its infancy, but it has the potential to evolve and fill the vacuum in the bifocal orthodoxy of customary international law.23076

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.