By Shayna Halliwell, an M.A. student in human rights

This article is Part One of a two-part op-ed series exploring the different sides of the R2P debate.

The atrocity crimes that stain humanity’s conscience make it imperative that leaders transform R2P from a vital principle into visible practice.”

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made this statement in an informal dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in September 2015. R2P officially celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, and has achieved major successes since its unanimous approval by UN Member States at the World Summit in 2005.

Created at the urging of the Secretary General at the time, Kofi Annan, as a response to the mass atrocities committed in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the concept of R2P exists first and foremost to prevent mass atrocities from occurring. It does so by supporting the state in protecting its populations from four major crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Only when states are “manifestly failing to protect their populations” does the international community have the obligation to step in with diplomatic assistance, sanctions, or military intervention.

R2P is a principle that can be applied not only when states are intentionally failing to safeguard their people, but also when they simply do not have the capacity to protect without external intervention. R2P, when applied appropriately and properly, reinforces and strengthens the state by protecting civilians and preventing or avoiding further mass violence.

R2P’s detractors may argue that invoking the principle violates state sovereignty; however, a comprehensive understanding of R2P, as it was agreed upon in 2005, shows that the international community is only meant to play a complementary role to that of the state. Contrary to the concerns of some UN Member States, military intervention is not automatically triggered by declarations of concern about the protection of civilians. The state is the foundation of R2P, not its nemesis.

Security Council Summit, 1992

R2P has been successfully invoked in a variety of cases:

  • Kenya during their elections in 2007 and 2008
  • Guinea after attacks by government forces on peaceful protesters in 2009
  • Kyrgyzstan during an outbreak of ethnic conflict in 2010
  • Côte D’Ivoire following post-election violence in 2010 and 2011

There are people alive today in South Sudan and in the Central African Republic because of R2P. Regardless of criticisms regarding state sovereignty, it cannot be denied that this principle has saved lives.

The problem that most countries have is not with R2P itself, but rather with the muddled understanding several governments have of what it entails. Many believe there is a disproportionate emphasis on military interventions within this framework. At a General Assembly panel discussion held in February 2016, several Member State representatives spoke of an inherent contradiction between R2P and the concepts of territorial integrity and sovereignty enshrined within the Charter of the United Nations. Such a contradiction does not exist, and is rather an example of one of many misunderstandings contemporary diplomats and country representatives have about R2P. This is despite their predecessors’ unanimous agreement to the World Summit Outcome Document and its paragraphs on R2P in 2005.

As former Special Adviser on R2P, Jennifer Welsh, stated at this same debate in February, the principle sets expectations and provides a framework for action. However, as with every other international norm, it cannot compel action in and of itself. While there may have been failures in its application both militarily and diplomatically, this concept is still only in its infancy. The fact that R2P has become common parlance shows that the principle is becoming internalized, and that it has made a difference to the way international crises are perceived and the ways in which international bodies react to them.

The future for R2P looks bright. Just the day before the UN debate in February, a General Assembly resolution drafted by a diverse set of states was disseminated for review on the topic. While Member States may continue to argue about terms of engagement, there is the broad sense that a multilateral response to mass atrocities does not necessarily have to be perceived as inappropriate.

As Welsh has said, “We must not shy away from a principle because it is demanding” – in fact, this should encourage us to do better. As long as the next Secretary General retains a focus on R2P, just as Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan have, this emerging norm has a viable chance of re-building consensus on how to handle the toughest security questions, and how to institutionalize a system-wide approach to atrocity prevention within the United Nations.

Shayna Halliwell is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research is focused on the intersection between international security and Indigenous rights.

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