The UN General Assembly will take up the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” next week, reviewing the Secretary-General’s 2009 report[i] on implementation and launching a general debate. It may only be more words, but this is an issue on which words can really be a matter of life and death.

Since it was formally adopted at the 2005 Summit meeting of the General Assembly, R2P has been a doctrine honored rather more in principle than in practice. The victims of that continuing abstraction are well known. Today they live and die especially in Afghanistan, the Congo (Kinshasa), Iraq, Somali, Sudan, and Zimbabwe – these being among the locations where people are still prominently targets of at least one of the four key crimes from which the people of the world were promised protection through R2P – genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity.

In each case the national Government is manifestly failing to protect its own people, often for myriad reasons that are certainly not all of their own doing or not doing, and in each case the international community is having only spotty, if any, success in effectively protecting people in extraordinary peril.

Those who bear the brunt of those crimes are unlikely to be heartened by the prospect of another debate at the United Nations, but without debate, without some concerted diplomatic, political, and intellectual push to forge new ways of, and commitments to, responding, their particular crises will only deepen and others will be added.

 A core suspicion that still attends R2P debates is the worry that the noble objective of protecting vulnerable people will simply be appropriated by the big powers as one more justification for their interference in the affairs of smaller and weaker states. But, at the same time, the main impediment to operationalizing R2P with some measure of consistency is the reluctance of those same big powers to accept any binding obligation to intervene on behalf of vulnerable people outside their own jurisdiction.

 One positive consequence of this mutual wariness of intervention is that the doctrine's attention to non-military remedies has been strengthened. The 2005 UN Summit, which formalized the R2P principle or doctrine, places the primary responsibility for protecting people on national governments, the sovereignty as responsibility principle. When states “manifestly” fail in meeting that responsibility, the international community then has the responsibility to use “diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII [regional multilateral organizations] of the [UN] Charter,”[ii] to come to the aid of those threatened with genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity.

And only when those peaceful means are clearly failing does the R2P doctrine allow for (it does not require it), with Security Council approval according to the Charter, more coercive measures under Chapter VII – and even in those cases the debate centres increasingly on the imposition of nonmilitary coercion through measures like diplomatic and economic sanctions and arms embargoes before accepting, as the Secretary General puts it, “the application of coercive force in extreme situations” that relate specifically to any of the four crimes covered by the R2P doctrine.

The R2P principles are by now well established, thus, as the Secretary General (SG) points out in his report, “the task ahead is not to interpret or renegotiate” this doctrine, but it is “to find ways of implementing [it] in a fully faithful and consistent manner” (para 2).

But faithful and consistent implementation of the responsibility to protect is impeded by a “paucity of will” (para 63) that is rooted in part in that extreme reluctance of the major powers to allow themselves to be formally bound to act in response to unforeseeable external circumstances. That reluctance has resulted in a refusal to clearly define the conditions, the warning signs, that should trigger specific actions in a process of gradually escalating responses to escalating conflict and growing vulnerability. In fact, the SG’s report, probably anticipating the resistance, specifically rejects the pursuit of “a rigidly sequenced strategy or tightly defined ‘triggers’ for action” (para 50).

At the same time, the SG’s report makes an important case for undertaking investigations and fact-finding missions “early in a crisis” (para 53) as part of an early warning and response process. But for that to happen early on and consistently in an environment that generally lacks the political will to act, there is a need for some way to trigger such investigations that is not dependent on a heavily politicized decision-making process. The Security Council, General Assembly, and Human Rights Council, for example, all have investigative powers, but there is not a process that automatically triggers or mandates investigations when certain conditions obtain. In the absence of such triggers to launch investigations, responses remain subject to highly politicized decisions on a case-by-case basis. As a result the international community will continue to avoid acting in too many cases – to the extraordinary peril of vulnerable people in the affected countries or regions.

The need for certain kinds of reasonably objective triggers for action is reinforced by a study reported in the Washington Post which indicates a general tendency for individuals and the public to react much more strongly and to show greater concern for small-scale suffering than large-scale suffering. The more victims, it seems, the easier it is to look the other way. It is a phenomenon similar to the impact of changes brought by a small amount of light – the difference between darkness and a five watt bulb is dramatic; the difference between a 90 watt bulb and a 100 watt bulb is hardly noticeable, even though the latter change is twice the watts of the former.[iii]

The coming General Assembly debate will not be decisive for the millions who still face threats of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity. It will nevertheless be an opportunity for states to reaffirm the basic principle of sovereignty as responsibility and to reaffirm the international community’s obligations toward vulnerable people. Above all, it should mark a transition from abstract principle to efforts to carefully track abuses and to delineate avenues of concrete, consistent action – in short, the words should ultimately lead to saved lives.

[email protected]


[i] United Nations. “Implementing the responsibility to protect,” Report of the Secretary-General. 12 January 2009. Follow-up to the outcome of the Millennium Summit (A/63/677).

[ii] Repeated in para 1 of the Secretary General’s report (2009).

[iii] Shakar Vedantum, “Mass Suffering and Why We Look the Other Way,” Washington Post, 5 January 2009.


The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.