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Controversy of the Responsibility to Protect

The idea behind the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), is that states can intervene to stop any mass atrocities from happening; such as genocides, war crimes and other massive violent crimes. It is a commitment that all UN member states have agreed to fulfil. This political commitment; developed for the main part after the Rwandan Genocide, the break up of former Yugoslavia, and the NATO intervention in Kosovo. In all of the aforementioned atrocities, the international community failed to respond in an adequate manner that conformed with international humanitarian standards and human rights law. Therefore, at the World Summit in 2005, R2P was unanimously adopted.

R2P is based on three pillars:

  1. Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

  2. The wider international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility.

  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.

Therefore, R2P is a political commitment states make to their citizens. Still, it is also a commitment other states make to citizens of the international community. If a state is unable or unwilling to fulfil their duty, another state may intervene. In addition, this has to be approved by the Security Council and will be decided on a case by case matter. However, R2P is also considered to be a very controversial norm. It is considered to be a controversy on multiple levels. Firstly, states have been accused of using the doctrine for their own political gain. Secondly, it is tough to determine whether or not this doctrine has been successful.

Political Game

One of the main issues is that R2P is a political commitment, and the major problem that the UN and other International Organisations face, is that they are intertwined in the complexity of state politics. The idea behind humanitarian law and human rights law is that people are protected and have rights irrespective of state politics. However, since R2P is determined by the UNSC, it is bound to be an incredibly political decision. Countries like China and Pakistan worry that R2P can legitimise military intervention into weaker states, especially by the West.

Moreover, states like China, Pakistan, Brazil, and India, do not consider a strong or weak promotion of human rights to be part of their foreign policy. Using the example of Syria, China and Russia, who remained opposed to the idea of any intervention led by a foreign power (i.e. USA), they argued that this would lead to an unnecessary intervention of state politics and that the only successful intervention needed to be Syrian-led, with help from outside countries in a manner that is free from all human rights violations. However, the position taken by Russia is widely recognised to be influenced by their political relations with Syria. Their only naval fleet is located in the Black Sea in Syria Port. Moreover, India, although motivated to vote alongside the USA in regards to protecting the Syrian people, also allows the influence of Saudi Arabia to impact its decisions. Saudi Arabia had been promising to increase India’s energy imports. In addition, India needs to have a stable relationship with its Gulf neighbours, as a lot of India’s workers are present there.

On the 27th of June 2019, the General Assembly met and discussed their views on the R2P doctrine. Countries like Syria, Myanmar, and Venezuela citing that sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence are crucial and should be respected by their fellow member states.

Even though a state's sovereignty is violated to a certain extent when intervened by another. The states who argue the aforementioned issue rarely mention the protection of human rights and the plethora of human rights violations occurring in their country. For example, Syria discussed that having other states intervene would be a violation of their sovereignty and political independence. However, they never discussed a detailed plan for how they were going to solve the human rights violations going on in their country.

How do we know its successful

It is very challenging to determine if R2P has been a failure or if it has been successful. Firstly, measuring R2P as a success and a failure, and thus as two mutually exclusive terms on opposite sides of the spectrum, is damaging and futile to the doctrine. R2P is called upon when states or actors within a country are committing some of the worst crimes seen in humanity. Therefore, there will be failures and successes in each R2P mission. However, one of the most significant issues with R2P is that it does not use military language to defend its purposes, whilst Humanitarian Intervention does. This has been a substantial critique of the doctrine, it claims that it seeks to prevent atrocities. In reality, it has always clearly been a military intervention. Using Libya as an example, R2P can be considered to be a failure for many reasons. After the conflict, states were unable to rebuild Libya, which is a crucial part of the doctrine. Libya split into militia groups, and the conflict is still ongoing. However, on the other hand, during the initial conflict, the intervention did lead to the protection of people, humanitarian assistance and the removal of Gadaffi. The Libyan case is a powerful example that it is incredibly hard to determine whether or not R2P has been a failure. The same can be said for the intervention in Syria. However, the forces were able to significantly push back ISIS and limit their territory and influence significantly, but at what cost? The protection of the people took a back seat. Leaders justifying drone strikes, killing hundreds of civilians for the killing of one terrorist, defeats the purpose of R2P. R2P needs to revitalise its doctrine, and needs to clearly state that military intervention is a significant part of it. Most importantly, intervening states need to help rebuild the countries that were intervened in, the turmoil in these states is usually caused by political instability; leaving them behind in the ruins will just increase the likelihood of more instability.


Deitelhoff, N. (2019). Is the R2P Failing? The Controversy about Norm Justification and Norm Application of the Responsibility to Protect. Global Responsibility to Protect, 11(2), 149-171.

Dietrich, John W., "R2P and Intervention After Libya" (2013). History and Social Sciences Faculty Journal Articles. Paper 86.

GA/12159 27 JUNE 2019 GENERAL ASSEMBLYPLENARY SEVENTY-THIRD SESSION, 93RD & 94TH MEETINGS (AM & PM): Member States Exchange Views on Responsibility to Protect, as General Assembly Debates Best Ways for Preventing Genocide, War Crimes.

Hobson, C. (2016). Responding to Failure: The Responsibility to Protect after Libya. Millennium, 44(3), 433-454.

Polish Political Science Yearbook, vol. 47(3) (2018), pp. 553–570 DOI: PL ISSN 0208-7375

The Politics of Responsibility to Protect Marc Saxer

Tourinho, Marcos, Stuenkel, Oliver, & Brockmeier, Sarah. (2016). "Responsibility while Protecting": Reforming R2P Implementation. Global Society : Journal of Interdisciplinary International Relations, 30(1), 134-150.

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