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Currently, large populations in Syria and Myanmar are facing crimes such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Under the domain of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), if a country is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens, the international community has the responsibility to protect those citizens facing the crimes of mass atrocities. The third and most effective pillar of the principle includes military intervention under the authorization of the Security Council, something several scholars and heads of states believe is vital to responding to these situations.

This paper aims to evaluate the principle of R2P by recognizing its emergence as a concept, while examining its current use in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The paper also aims to determine why Security Council Member states have not been able to uphold their responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities in Syria and Myanmar.

On one hand, the principle of R2P is being hailed as a success due to the number of times it has been cited in resolutions and UNSC deliberations. However, on the other hand, the principle in practice has been regularly questioned and criticized in the Security Council as it involves non-consensual foreign military intervention. Instances such as Libya have persuaded Russia and China to refrain from adopting any R2P-military resolutions in response to Syria and Myanmar, leaving populations in those regions exposed to horrific crimes.

Emergence of R2P

Following the severe atrocities of Rwanda and Srebrenica in 1994 and 1995, as well as the perceived sovereignty violations of the NATO military intervention in Kosovo, Kofi Annan, then Assistant Secretary-General, realized the international community’s failure in ensuring human protection and planned to bring the matter to global attention. He warned that the UN risked discrediting itself as it failed to respond to catastrophes such as Rwanda and Srebrenica, and he challenged member states to agree on a legal and political framework for collective international response.

In 2000, Annan (now as UN Secretary-General) wrote the report “We the Peoples” addressing the UN’s role in the 21st century and posing his infamous question: “if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”. Set up by the Canadian Government to answer Annan’s question, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) released a report that laid the foundations for the principle of R2P; it addressed the conditions required for an external state’s involvement either through humanitarian aid or military intervention.

Moving forward, R2P was recognized and (unanimously) endorsed by the UN General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document paragraphs 138, 139. In 2009, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon released a report on implementing the Responsibility to Protect which set the direction of the principle and proposed the three-pillar approach: (Paragraph form?) Pillar 1 – Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from the four mass atrocity crimes. Pillar 2 – The wider international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility. Pillar 3 – If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the UN Charter.

Since the initial report, the SG has published an annual report addressing the development and progress of R2P. These reports are followed by a debate in the UN General Assembly which ensures that the issue is regularly discussed about and that there is continual global attention surrounding it. Additionally, since its establishment as a doctrine, the UNSC has invoked R2P in 67 resolutions since 2006 and the principle has been consistently used by various states during times of intra-state conflict.

The international community was ill-prepared/unprepared to respond to crimes of mass atrocities considering the inaction in the 1990s as well as the acrimonious debates surrounding sovereignty and human rights. However, the adoption of this doctrine has shifted the discussion from sovereignty and human rights to recognizing the different ways states can work together to protect civilians. With R2P, states now have a framework for employing measures such as mediation, economic sanctions and military intervention to prevent atrocity crimes and to protect civilians from their occurrence. Francis Deng, former UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, stated that “R2P is one of the most powerful and promising innovations on the international scene”.

As a concept, the consistent use of R2P language in UNSC deliberations and speeches is a cause for celebration. In fact, Alex Bellamy argues that R2P’s language has led to a behavioural change in the way international society responds to mass killing and that states are in a better position to respond in times of crises. However, in practice, the principle has been heavily criticized by several states and has been the subject of tense debate in the international community for the last 13 years.

R2P in Practice

Following its establishment, the principle of R2P has been invoked numerous times in response to crises and conflicts around the world. Situations in Cote D’Ivoire (2011) and Libya (2011) demanded foreign military interference to protect civilians in the regions. The actions taken in the SC-authorized Libyan operation heavily influenced the positions/rhetoric of Russia and China in regards to R2P. At its infancy, Russia and China were in favour of the principle and were not opposed to military intervention to protect civilians of another state. However, with the outcome of Libya, they are much more reluctant to pursue military intervention in the name of R2P and have stood as a blockade in the Security Council in response to the current crimes occurring in Syria and Myanmar.

Libya (2011)

In mid-February 2011, violent protests and uprisings erupted across Libya. In a week, insurgents seized control of several areas in the eastern part of the country, around Benghazi, as well as in the western side near Misrata. Gaddafi’s regime swiftly moved to militarily quash the rebellion, warning of the possibility of civil war. On the international stage, several organizations immediately convened meetings to discuss the Libyan situation. Deliberations in the Security Council yielded two important resolutions: Resolution 1970, 1973.

Resolution 1970 recognized the UNSC’s responsibility to protect while demanding an end to hostilities in the region and establishing an arms embargo, a travel ban and an asset freeze in the region. Although it was passed on 26th February, the motions were scrapped and Resolution 1973 was in the works. On March 27th, the UNSC passed Resolution 1973 with 10 votes in favour and 5 Abstentions (Russia, China, India, Germany, Brazil); It authorized the council to take “all necessary measures…to protect civilians” in Libya, including use of military forces. The resolution included the provisions mentioned in Resolution 1970 as well as the establishment of a no-fly zone in the region.

Two weeks after the adoption of the resolution, NATO aircraft began striking military forces in Libya with the aim to protect Libyan citizens and degrade the Gaddafi regime’s capability to resist the no-fly zone. This was the first use of military intervention in the na
me of R2P without the consent of the host government. (Cote D’Ivoire was the first to receive military forces under R2P, however, this was requested by the Cote D’Ivoire government.)

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