In the "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

Click here to explore the full "Ethical Inquiry" series.

Ethical Inquiry: March 2015

Responsibility to Protect (R2P) at 10 banner image

The Responsibility to Protect at 10

In November 2009, The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life explored the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in an Ethical Inquiry. For more on the origin, historical basis and early debate on R2P, see the 2009 Ethical Inquiry.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of R2P and the conference  “The Responsibility to Protect at 10: The Challenge of Protecting the World's Most Vulnerable Populations,” organized by the Ethics Center and the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University and hosted at Brandeis University March 8 and 9, 2015, we are revisiting this topic to explore the debate and how it has been applied over the last six years.

What is the “Responsibility to Protect”?

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) refers to the obligation of states toward their own populations and toward all populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. The Responsibility to Protect entails two levels of responsibility for protecting the lives of civilians.

First, the principle says that governments have primary responsibility for the protection of civilian populations within their borders.

Second, the principle says that if governments fail to protect their own people, the international community has the responsibility to step in to protect populations from serious harm.

R2P has three areas of responsibility:

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 U.N. Charter.

The concept of R2P originated in a 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document paragraphs 138, 139 and 140.

For more information on the concept of R2P, visit the websites of the U.N. Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

Recent Evolution

In January 2009, the U.N. Secretary-General released a report called “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.” The General Assembly then debated R2P’s formal implementation in July 2009. At this debate U.N. Member States overwhelmingly reaffirmed the 2005 commitment and the General Assembly passed a consensus resolution taking note of the Secretary-General's report.

The Secretary-General has since released five annual reports in advance of the General Assembly Informal Interactive Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect.

The Security Council has invoked R2P in more than 20 resolutions since 2006. The Human Rights Council has also invoked R2P in a number of resolutions, most recently on the situation in Syria.

In 2011, the Obama administration issued a directive that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

Current Critiques

As it was when we first considered this topic in 2009, the debate on the legitimacy of R2P is both philosophical and practical.

In the Washington Post in late 2014, Roland Paris of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, observes some of the philosophical problems that continue to plague R2P:

  1. The Mixed-Motives Problem: Though R2P is purported to be used altruistically, it is impossible to isolate the altruistic aims from the other motives, including that of self-interest, that accompany any use of force. Paris notes that this problem is not only unavoidable but in some ways necessary, because if intervention were not motivated partly by self-interest, intervention may never happen or might lack the political commitment necessary to accomplish objectives. Yet this problem is certain to call into question the legitimacy of these operations.
  2. The Counterfactual Problem: This is the idea that it is impossible to gauge the success of R2P, since its success is measured by an event (genocide or other mass atrocity) not occurring. Even if there is an R2P intervention and there is no mass atrocity, it is impossible to know if a mass atrocity would have occurred without the intervention.
  3. The Conspicuous Harm Problem: While the hypothetical atrocity that would occur without the use of R2P can only be imagined, the real and almost certain costs and harms of military intervention are visible. This destruction is much more likely to shape perception than the hypothetical damage of what might have happened, and this destruction can undermine the credibility of the intervention because the stated purpose of R2P is to prevent harm.
  4. The End-State Problem: Even once the immediate objective of preventing or stopping mass atrocity is met, users of R2P then must devise an “exit strategy.” However, the requirements for leaving an area where R2P is used are much more expansive than the initial objectives. This suggests that R2P will be prone to mandate expansion to meet the exit requirements.
  5. The Inconsistency Problem: The authority and credibility of R2P is undermined because it may not be used consistently, even in the case of similar mass atrocities.

Paris suggests that these problems put those considering R2P in a “lose/lose” situation: “if there is no intervention in the face of looming mass atrocities, R2P is likely to be criticized as phony or hollow, because of the inconsistency problem. On the other hand, if a preventive operation is launched and achieves its initial goal of averting an atrocity, it is still likely to be judged harshly because of the combined effects of the first four problems.”

Others, like Mohammed Nuruzzaman, Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait, critique R2P by arguing that the report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty introducing R2P had a number of theoretical problems. He says that the “definition of ‘responsibility to protect’ is partial and incomplete. Protection responsibilities, as articulated by the report, only apply to the four crimes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. …The narrow focus on protection rights leaves the R2P doctrine open to criticisms and controversies as it presses the world community to tackle the outbursts of conflicts and atrocities and does less to address the root causes of conflicts to prevent human calamities.”

Nuruzzaman continues “the R2P doctrine is based on undemocratic and unsustainable premises. It discriminates between powerful and weak states and thus resembles the much condemned and obsolete Indian caste system – who will get and give up what rights in a hierarchical system. Article 4.42 of the report exempts the five permanent members and other great powers from R2P actions, no matter how grave human rights situations in those countries are. That means R2P actions are primarily meant to apply to the weak states, such as Libya that must comply with the norm of human protection or face the consequences of the use of force under U.N. Security Council authorization.”

The Application of R2P to Recent Crises

Opponents argue equally fervently that economic sanctions are ineffective and inhumane/morally wrong.


The 2011 international air campaign in Libya is considered the first international use of R2P. The U.N. Security Council authorized military force to protect “civilians and civilian-populated areas” in the country after Libya’s then-President, Moammar Quadaffi, threatened to overrun Benghazi.

There followed a rapid intervention by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led air forces that quickly stopped Quadaffi’s forces, seeming to be an initial success for R2P. Gareth Evans, an author of the original R2P report, said that “the international military intervention in Libya is not about bombing for democracy or Muammar Qaddafi's head – let alone keeping oil prices down or profits up. Legally, morally, politically, and militarily it has only one justification: protecting the country's people.” R2P proponents also point to regional backing for the no-fly zone over Libya from organizations such as the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, stressing its international legitimacy.

However, when other governments, such as those in Yemen and Bahrain, used force against civilians and protesters, critics began to question the selective use of R2P for what the White House called “‘limited humanitarian intervention, not war’ in Libya.”

Marjorie Cohn, a law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, argues that the Obama administration has been inconsistent with countries like Yemen and Bahrain because they, in contrast to Libya, are U.S. allies. Other critics argue that there are more pressing cases for humanitarian intervention – from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Ivory Coast – thereby questioning why Libya was chosen as the R2P test case.

Stewart Patrick, of the Council on Foreign Relations, counters that “just because the international community can't or chooses not to act everywhere doesn't mean that it shouldn't act anywhere when there is sufficient political will to be mobilized. There is bound to be selectivity and inconsistency in the application of the responsibility to protect norm given the complexity of national interests at stake in U.S. calculations and in the calculations of other major powers involved in these situations.”

Others consider that the anticipated outcome of the proposed R2P intervention be evaluated in the decision to use R2P. James Traub argues in Foreign Policy that Libya presents the best case for intervention because unlike in Congo or Darfur, here “force could work.”

However, Paris contends, Libya may not ultimately be seen as a successful implementation of R2P. Even after the immediate threat of Quadaffi’s forces to Benghazi was quelled, “the NATO-led coalition provided de facto air support for Libyan rebels, who counterattacked and ultimately destroyed the Gaddafi regime. This, in turn, provoked an angry response from several countries, including some that had voted for intervention and now accused NATO of using R2P as a cover for regime change.”

In President Obama’s speech to the American people before the use of force in Libya, he stressed that the mission was not intended to produce “regime change,” nor would harm come to those citizens who were unarmed and only seeking to escape the violence. However, critics note that “the fact that the outcome was decidedly different in several respects has drawn into question the sincerity of President Obama’s words and the real intent of the intervention. Ordinary citizens were indeed killed, though perhaps unintentionally, by allied bombing; regime change did, of course, occur; and, more importantly, the norm was compromised by the very actions taken by the allies themselves.”

North Korea

More than four million people have died of starvation in North Korea (DPRK) since 1995. The United Nations reports that over six million North Koreans, particularly children and pregnant and breast-feeding women, are currently at risk of death due to starvation.      

Amid mounting human rights concerns in DPRK, on March 21, 2013 the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted resolution 22/13, establishing a Commission of Inquiry to investigate systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights, particularly where “these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.” The report established responsibility at the highest levels of government for “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

In 2014, a U.N. report discussed the importance of considering R2P for North Korea, noting that Pyongyang had “manifestly” failed to fulfill its state responsibility to protect its people against “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.”

However, even the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect has acknowledged the difficulty in applying R2P to North Korea. It notes that despite the attempts of numerous U.N. bodies and organizations to call attention to the grave abuses in North Korea, the “UNSC has thus far engaged with DPRK almost exclusively in the context of nuclear non-proliferation.” It further suggests “The highly sequestered nature of the DPRK regime raises the question of how R2P can be effectively utilized to respond to such a case.”

Others acknowledge that in the case of North Korea, R2P faces many obstacles. Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University said that, “R2P is not applicable to the North Korean case, because one of the conditions is that there be a feasible option for outsiders. The North Korean government has gone to great lengths to make it difficult to impossible for outsiders to interfere there, and using force to try to change their human rights behavior would probably hurt as many people as it would help.”

However, others still support the applicability of R2P to North Korea. Genocide Watch, a respected NGO that exists “to predict, prevent, stop, and punish genocide” and whose board of advisors includes anti-genocide activists such as Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire and Samantha Power, published a report in 2011 that found that North Korea has indeed committed genocide as defined in Raphael Lemkin’s 1948 Convention, stating that there is “ample proof that genocide has been committed and mass killing is still underway in North Korea.”

Activist Robert Park says that “North Korea, a genocidaire of the first order, falls incontrovertibly into the category of state perpetrator and is manifestly demonstrating a ‘failure to protect’ its own people. It is high time for the international community to respond with the means necessary to stop the crimes being committed against the people of North Korea.”

Additionally, the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect notes, referring to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry Report, that “as has been made abundantly clear from the Commission of Inquiry and other groups investigating the treatment of civilians in North Korea, there has seldom been a case in contemporary history in which a country, and the international community by extension, has failed so greatly in upholding its responsibility to protect civilians.”

Israel and Gaza

Justice in Conflict published a series of four articles in a symposium on Israel, Palestine and the Responsibility to Protect, much of which discusses the importance of classification as an intra- or inter-state conflict to the determination of whether R2P is applicable.

In the first article, Aidan Hehir, author of The Responsibility to Protect: Rhetoric, Reality and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention, states that “the weakness of R2P is that it applies to atrocities committed within a state’s borders. Is Gaza in Israel? … Thus, could there then be logic to the idea that R2P does not apply to the crisis in Gaza because it is an inter-state conflict, hence the lack of coverage from R2P groups?”

The article answers a definitive “no.” It argues first that humanitarian concern should not be undermined by legalistic and “technical” arguments; second, that even if many countries recognize Palestine as a country, Israel does not, denying the ambiguity of a truly inter-state conflict; and third, notes that a case may be made for a use of R2P in an inter-state crisis. He argues that paragraph 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document on Responsibility to Protect “states that the international community has a responsibility ‘to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’. This does not stipulate that the crimes have to be committed in an intra-state context.”

In the second article, Megan Schmidt, a Senior Program Officer at the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, asks central questions governing R2P’s applicability to Gaza: “What is the status of Gaza? What entities have governing authority over and responsibility for the people of Gaza? And what does said governing mean in practice?” She then discusses how the different analyses of Gaza’s status alter the application of R2P.

She writes “if one were to view Hamas as the governing authority, then under R2P, Hamas would have the obligation to protect its populations within its borders from the commission of the four crimes and violations, a responsibility that would also exist for Israel with regards to its populations residing within its territory.” However, if the conflict between Israel and Gaza were considered inter-state, “[w]hile both governing bodies would have the obligation under the Responsibility to Protect to prevent the commission of atrocity crimes within their borders, RtoP would not be applicable for the protection of civilians across borders in the crisis.”

She notes that, in contrast, “the applicability of R2P, however, would be drastically different if it was found that Gaza was an occupied territory under Israeli authority,” In that case, “…the Responsibility to Protect the populations of Gaza would fall between both the Occupying Power, Israel, and the de facto authority, Hamas. The degree to which each has the responsibility to protect populations in Gaza would be determined by the test of ‘effective control;’ namely, the extent of the capacity of each party to implement a particular measure to protect civilians.”

In the third article, Michael Kearney, a lecturer in law at the University of Sussex, writes that “R2P merely repackages a principle that already existed, namely that states have a moral – and kind of legal – obligation to act in the face of genocide and widespread human rights abuses.” He notes that while the acceptance of R2P is a sort of “Statement of Intention,” any use of armed force is still subject to the Security Council. He argues that there is inconsistency in the application of R2P, and writes that “As a structural, long-standing problem of occupation, dispossession, racism, and violence, the Israeli-Palestine conflict doesn’t ‘fit’ into the staccato tendency of crisis-to-crisis, which, to a large extent, characterises ‘mainstream’ international legal scholarship and thinking.”

In the fourth article, James P. Rudolph asks, “are we… witnessing genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing? If we are not, R2P does not apply.”  In considering whether war crimes have been committed in the conflict, he writes that “…neither Israel nor Gaza is engaging in excessive force against its own population, so R2P, while an attractive prism through which to view the conflict, seems not to apply.”


The dire humanitarian crisis in Syria, claiming more than 100,000 lives, has led U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to stress the urgent need for a political solution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court and urged the Security Council to accept its responsibility to protect the population of Syria.

“The Government of Syria is manifestly failing to protect its populations,” the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said in a statement in December 2012. “The international community must act on the commitment made by all Heads of State and Government at the 2005 World Summit to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, including their incitement.”

Mohammed Nuruzzaman summarizes answers to why there has been no use of R2P in Syria, writing “R2P supporters unfailingly point to unethical postures and actions by Russia and China, the two non-Western powers that used their veto power to torpedo Security Council resolutions on Syria. Critics, on the contrary, charge that R2P heavily hinges on moral advocacy but is susceptible to the unfolding nature of power politics of the P5 (the five permanent members) at the U.N. Security Council which has its acute reflections on Syria.  NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) military operations in Libya did not promote the R2P norm and the P3 (Britain, France and the US) would not intervene in situations like Syria where the costs of intervention outweigh their strategic benefits.” Nuruzaaman then goes beyond “conventional critiques,” to conclude that R2P “is theoretically defective, practically not implementable and morally disastrous.”

David Carment and Joe Landry contend that, in contrast to Libya, “the failure of major regional players in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to apply and enforce the R2P doctrine in the case of the Syrian civil war represents a significant challenge to the international community, generally, and the norms of the doctrine itself, specifically. While the Libya conflict and the subsequent U.N. resolution to allow for the use of force enjoyed broad-based support from key regional organizations—such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the League of Arab States (LAS)—the case has not been quite the same in Syria…. Due to both wariness of the Western powers’ intentions in Syria and the complex regional dynamics the MENA countries and their associated regional organizations currently face, the Syria case has proven itself to be much more difficult to tackle.”

They note the lack of use of R2P language in the debate regarding action in Syria, saying that “the political stalemate in the region—with Iran and Russia promoting the norm of non-intervention and, on the opposition side, countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar providing training and arms to the rebels—illustrates the inherent difficulty of promoting and enforcing the R2P doctrine.”

Finally, they say that the lack of action in Syria demonstrates the weaknesses of R2P: “R2P as a doctrine of intervention will only be implemented in very specific situations wherein the strategic benefits to the interveners outweigh the costs of intervention…. [W]hen the political fallout caused by intervention is too much for the great powers to handle, R2P’s coercive elements are much less likely to play a significant and viable role in determining their strategic actions.” They conclude that the more useful part of R2P will be the preventive components of the doctrine “where costs and risk can be anticipated in advance of large scale conflict.”

Other Conflicts

For discussion of R2P in other conflicts such as the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire, visit the R2P page for the United Nations Outreach Programme on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations.

Final Thoughts: The Future of The Responsibility to Protect

As the applicability and merits of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) continue to be discussed for each new humanitarian crisis, it is clear that the debate over R2P is not over. Will R2P be a successful tool to make good on the promise of “never again,” or will R2P ultimately become another philosophy that fails to protect the world’s most vulnerable?

To further consider these issues, please join the conversation on March 8 and 9, 2015 at the conference: “The Responsibility to Protect at 10: The Challenge of Protecting the World's Most Vulnerable Populations,” hosted at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA.

Have suggestions for additional content that relates to the ethical issues surrounding the Responsibility to Protect? Let us know.

Comment on this "Ethical Inquiry" on the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life's Facebook page. Become a fan.

Follow the Ethics Center on Twitter: @EthicsBrandeis.

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was produced with Brandeis University alumni research and writing support.