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Responsibility to Protect: An Emerging Norm?


This post, written by Natasha Kieval, Programs Intern, describes the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect in light of the recent report “The United States and R2P: From Words to Action.” 

In 2005, at the UN World Summit, governments adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. This doctrine was created out of the inability of the international community to adequately prevent and respond to heinous mass atrocities in numerous countries, including Cambodia, East Timor, Haiti, Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. The concept of R2P rests on three pillars: the state’s responsibility to protect its population, international assistance for states to fulfill their responsibilities, and timely and decisive collective action when a state is failing to protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity.

In practice, R2P is rarely formally invoked, most notably during the conflict in Libya. Concerns about the invocation of R2P include the possibility that it undermines national sovereignty and the idea that R2P necessarily means military intervention.

The US continues to be “fatigued” from its involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan and is hesitant to invoke R2P (which is often assumed, albeit incorrectly, to mean military intervention) and to become involved in other conflict areas. This hesitancy seems inconsistent with President Obama’s remarks in 2012 that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States,” and his additional creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board.

Several prominent US officials have encouraged the US to translate the idea of R2P into a reality – most notably former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former envoy to Sudan Rich Williamson, who together co-chaired a working group and published a report entitled “The United States and R2P: From Words to Action.” This report includes several recommendations to strengthen R2P: “articulating a clear vision of U.S. support for all pillars of R2P, diplomatically engaging key like-minded states, pursuing a policy of positive engagement with the International Criminal Court (ICC), continuing to institutionalize steps to prevent atrocities, and developing additional uses for modern technologies to advance R2P objectives.” The intent of these recommendations is to allow the US to become a more credible global leader for R2P and to move the international community forward on embracing R2P.

On Tuesday, Albright and Williamson spoke about this report at the US Holocaust Museum. They spoke of the report as a way to make R2P part of an emerging norm for an international response to crimes against humanity.

Issues with R2P still exist. In the wake of these heinous crimes, there is a struggle between the issue of individual guilt (the guilt of the perpetrators) and collective guilt (the guilt of the bystanders). Some have said that R2P increases collective guilt while not addressing individual guilt enough. Albright spoke of addressing this issue on a case by case basis, and remarked that it is always awkward for her to speak about the International Criminal Court, as the US has still not become a member. Williamson also addressed the possible “moral hazard problem” that arises from R2P – the possibility that a country could begin a conflict that it is sure it cannot finish, knowing that the international community will step in. Albright referred to R2P as a double-edged sword: it allows monitoring of conflicts and greater knowledge of international crimes, but with this knowledge comes a greater need to act.

Current conflicts were brought up during this event, specifically Syria, which is on everyone’s minds. It remains unclear whether R2P will be invoked in Syria, and how (or if) this report will affect US policy. The New York Times covered this with an article on Monday.


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