Has Responsibility to Protect Impeded Effective Responses to Violent Conflicts?


The end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries have been marked by a focus on human rights within international relations and within responses to security challenges. Human dignity is the global community’s top priority. Humanitarian values are even seen as more important than the principle of state sovereignty as first outlined in the Westphalia Peace Agreement of 1648. According to the traditional model, states must not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs, and states have a ‘legitimate monopoly on legitimate violence.’ [1]  Since the second half of the twentieth century, this principle has been ‘seriously undermined’ [2] by the discourse of human rights protection – often by states who once saw a vested interested in the classical model of international relations. Crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing have become leading concerns in international relations rhetoric, both internally within states and at the UN. Humanitarian intervention has evolved into the legal principle of responsibility to protect (R2P). This article is aimed at evaluating the usefulness of the concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) and tries to answer the question of whether it helps or impedes the conflict resolution process. In the first part of the paper, the concept is analysed in more detail in light of the history of its creation and its main components. The pros of R2P are then discussed and followed with a critique of the principle. Even though R2P could be an effective means of human rights protection, we find that the way it is interpreted and used usually complicates and protracts conflicts and brings harm both to the target society and to the intervener. In order to demonstrate this, examples are drawn from the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011, the Russian-Ukrainian and Russian-Georgian conflicts, and finally, the conflict in Sudan. The idea of intervening in a state’s domestic affairs for humanitarian reasons started to crystallize in the 1970s with events such as the Indian intervention in East Pakistan (1971) and Vietnam’s actions in Kampuchea (1978). [3] Interveners, as Louise Arbour notes in her article “The Responsibility to Protect as a Duty of Care in International Law and Practice,” [4] explained their actions in terms of the necessity to ‘save’ a population. However, the UN did not authorize these interventions. The need for the legitimization of interventions carried out for humanitarian reasons became evident in the 1990s after the Yugoslav and Rwandan tragedies.

After several years of conceptual debate, at the 2005 UN World Summit, member states unanimously voted for a new principle to be enshrined in international law, namely the ‘responsibility to protect’. [5] The essence of this principle is contained in the following provisions or pillars:

  • The primary responsibility of states is to protect their own populations from and prevent the incitement of four crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
  • It is the international community’s responsibility to take timely and decisive action in accordance with the UN Charter in cases where a state has manifestly failed to protect its population from one or more of the above four crimes.
  • It is the international community’s responsibility to assist a state in fulfilling its responsibility to protect.

These provisions altered and served to further institutionalize the earlier idea of humanitarian intervention, which was used in the aforementioned cases of Yugoslavia, Kampuchea and, some might say Iraq. The definition of humanitarian intervention now is that of ‘the use of military force by a state against another state when the chief publicly declared aim of that military action is ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state against which it is directed.’ [6] Under this new UN-ratified framework, military action becomes clearly detailed and considered the core of humanitarian intervention. Alternatively, R2P is a very broad concept that can be used in various ways, for cooperation, post-war state-building, humanitarian assistance and, if there is no other choice, military intervention. So, while humanitarian intervention targets states as subjects, R2P first emphasizes the responsibility of every state to take care of and protect its own citizens. [7]

R2P was met with enthusiasm by the international community (judging by a unanimous vote in its favour) and scholars alike. For example Louise Arbour, despite having admitted that the R2P principle does have certain shortcomings, is inclined to see it as a positive innovation overall. She argues that the heart of the R2P doctrine already rests upon an undisputed obligation of international law: the prevention and punishment of genocide.’[8] By committing themselves to the legal obligation to protect a population from genocide, states should be ready to engage militarily if necessary. Therefore, the question of legitimacy regarding external interference in a state’s domestic affairs is not necessarily conflictual. Yet Arbour points out that it is very important not to adopt potentially abusive interpretations of this concept, that is, it is important not to allow states to use R2P as a means by which to pursue their own interests. She concludes that if the responsibility to protect is properly understood and implemented it could be a very powerful means for maintaining human rights and international peace and security. [9]

These points do communicate optimism about the R2P concept. However, a vast proportion of scholars and practitioners do not share such a positive view. At the beginning of the R2P discussion at the UN World Summit, some countries expressed severe doubts about its conceptual sustainability and implementation. Alex Bellamy writes in his article Realising the Responsibility to Protect that two groups of member states expressed skepticism about the principle. The first group contained traditional opponents such as Cuba, Pakistan, Algeria, Iran, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. [10] They expressed the long-established fear that the legal consolidation of the principle would allow stronger states to interfere in weaker states’ domestic affairs. Of course, this was partly an expression of fears rooted in their own security concerns. The second group was comprised of states such as India, China and Russia [11]: states which would be unlikely to experience foreign intervention because of their military capacity and status as strong international players. Although personal security concerns factored less, these states were concerned that R2P would justify self-interested humanitarian interventions while also legitimatizing state abuses.

Scholars also expressed their doubts about the positive effects of the responsibility to protect in relation to the actual protection of a population from   abuse. Hehir claims that R2P is ‘a great slogan though little else.’[12] He argues that the way in which states deal with conflicts and international human rights issues today does not differ from 20 years ago, except for the use of the term ‘responsibility to protect’. [13] According to Hehir R2P has not brought about any innovation and remains a controversial principle of humanitarian intervention. Hehir describes enthusiasm about the idea as ‘a function more of what people imagine it to be rather than what it actually is.’ [14]

Both sides of the debate are convincing and both make strong points. Overall, as a concept the responsibility to protect is well-intentioned in origin. The three principles of R2P give a broad framework for the effective treatment of societies engaged in conflict. Moreover, as Todd Howland notes, human rights discourse gives a necessary conceptual and practical framework to peacekeeping operations conducted in conflict zones by both legitimatizing the deployment of peacekeepers on the one hand and on the other, by imposing legal obligations to obey the norms of humanitarian law. [15]

However, current practice shows that instead of becoming a powerful ‘shield’ for a population, human rights narratives like R2P are unhelpful in conflict resolution. Moreover, according to Andrew Linklater’s article The Problems of Harm in World Politics [16] interventions like those invisioned by R2P (i.e. implemented in conflict resolution) can actually become the source for at least three different types of harm. These “harms” may be inflicted by states upon one another as well as upon populations.

The first type of harm discussed by Linklater is ‘a deliberate harm in relations between independent political communities.’[17] Here Linklater is mainly referring to war, but this could be understood in a much broader context as well. As mentioned earlier, many scholars and practitioners express their concerns about R2P being used to justify illegitimate, self-interested interventions. Evidence shows that this is sometimes the case. One of the clearest examples of this is the Iraq War of 2003. Presented as a humanitarian intervention motivated by the necessity to remove from power a terrible human rights abuser, namely Saddam Hussein, there were other motives involved. Human Rights Watch notes that humanitarian intervention can only be justified when there is ‘on going or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life.’ [18] Despite Saddam’s crimes, this criteria was not met in Iraq. Neither a mass loss of human life, genocide or weapons of mass destruction could be proven. Today it is commonly agreed that this war was motivated by US national interests, such as the removal of a non-democratic and inimical leader, and the establishing of a democratic state in Iraq.

Some may argue that the case of Iraq is not a good example since it occurred before the adoption of R2P. But there are other examples of how R2P has not changed anything. The most illustrative example might be the recent Ukraine crises. Russia used the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ [19] when intervening in and annexing Crimea. The Russian president actively insisted that the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in Crimea (and in East Ukraine) were being violated. He emphasized the notion that the Russian-speaking population was endangered due to the activities of right-wing nationalist parties, such as ‘The Right Sector’, which were characterized as fascists, Nazis and Russophobes. [20] Again, as with the case of Iraq, this was pure speculation. Even though violations might have taken place, mass killings, genocide and ethnic cleansing did not occur and were extremely unlikely to occur in the future. Therefore, Russia’s actions cannot be placed under the pillars of ‘responsibility to protect” in any way.

The second kind of ‘harm’ that R2P may cause is that of ‘unintended harm’. [21] Here it is argued that R2P quite often causes harm, both to a target state and to an intervener. To illustrate this, we can turn to the example of Libya. Although Muammar Kaddafi was a perfect example of an autocratic ruler, during his 42 years in power, Libya was a relatively ‘normal’ state. Although far from being democratic, it was stable and relatively prosperous. After the intervention carried out by the western coalition in order to ‘save’ the Libyan population from a dictatorship, chaos ensued. It can hardly be called a state today. [22] Small tribal coalitions still conduct warfare against each other attempting to seize power and oil fields. Moreover, the threat of IS penetrating Libya is looming.  Intervention caused by an attempt to stop a cruel civil war and remove a ‘crazy dictator’ turned out not to be a rescue, but a disaster for the target country.

Interventions based on the R2P principle might also be harmful for the interveners. On the one hand, as an intervener, even if driven only by humane principles and the desire to help, blame for disasters cannot be dodged. Another problem is that of state sovereignty. It seems logical and in accordance with R2P that an intervener protecting a population would become involved in state-building within the target country. A good example might be Russia´s repeated interventions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, violating internationally recognized frontiers and giving rise to unrecognized states. Regardless of the main impetus for Russian intervention – humanitarian reasons or pure realpolitik – there are two evident shortcomings: 1) For half of the world, Russia really was the aggressor and for a certain period tensions between Russia and other countries were tangible; 2) Russia had and still has to deal with post-war South Ossetia and Abkhazia, meaning that it is currently investing a lot of money in these areas that is not helping its own economy. [23]

Finally, R2P might cause the third problem of negligence. At the beginning of this paper we quoted Bellamy’s thesis about R2P and its inability to mobilize the world community for timely and decisive responses to crises. R2P seems to be used only in those countries where interveners have either national interests or international concerns (for example, about security). In this sense, the case of civil war in Sudan and the behavior of the US are illustrative. In May 2004, the US State Department launched an investigation in order to establish whether or not the situation in Darfur could be considered genocide. Despite a positive decision, the state department announced that the policy of the US would not change and that it would not launch an intervention. [24] R2P therefore completely failed. Bellamy and Williams suggested that this was the consequence of indecisiveness: the US did not want to violate the fragile Naivasha Peace Agreement with military intervention. However, Sudan was not as important as, for example, the ‘war on terror’, which was launched at the same time. [25] For the US, intervention in Sudan would have been costly and of little personal benefit. Therefore, R2P does not guarantee the rescuing of a people, even if there is a clear case of human rights violation.

In the debate over the usefulness of the R2P principle in conflict resolution, both proponents and opponents have robust arguments that support their position. Even though the R2P principle in itself is positive in potential, real life shows that it usually does not help in protecting people and resolving a conflict. Instead R2P often becomes a source for various types of harm to the target state and to the intervener. This usually happens because R2P is used either to pursue egoistic goals – and is thus implemented to justify an intervener’s actions, or vice versa – or it is not used since it will not bring any benefits to the intervener. R2P may still become an effective and powerful tool for dealing with conflict, but for now enhanced international responsibility is needed.


[1] M. Hardt and A. Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (London: Penguine Books, 2004), 25.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arbour, L. ‘The Responsibility to Protect as a Duty of Care in International Law and Practice.’ Review of International Studies 34(3): 445-58.

[4] Ibid.

[5] A. J Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect – Five Years On,’ Ethics & International Affairs 24(2): 143.

[6] M. Marjanovic, ‘Is Humanitarian War the Exception?’ Mises Daily, April 2011, accessed 20 April 2015, http://mises.org/library/humanitarian-war-exception.

[7] A. J Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect – Five Years On,’ Ethics & International Affairs 24(2): 143.

[8] Arbour, L. ‘The Responsibility to Protect as a Duty of Care in International Law and Practice.’ Review of International Studies 34(3): 445-58.

[9] Ibid.

[10] A. J. Bellamy, ‘Realising the Responsibility to Protect.’ International Studies Perspectives 10(2): 111-28.

[11] Hehir, A. ‘The Responsibility to Protect: “Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing”.’ International Relations 24(2): 218-39.

[12]  Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] T. Howland, ‘Peacekeeping and Conformity with Human Rights Law: How MINUSTAH falls short in Haiti,’ International Peacekeeping 13(4): 471.

[16] Linklater, A. ‘The problems of harm in world politics.’ International Affairs 78: 319-38.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Human Rights Watch, ‘War In Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention, Human Rights Watch report,’ January 2004, accessed 20 February 2015, http://www.hrw.org/ru/news/2004/01/25/war-iraq-not-humanitarian-intervention.

[19] M. Kersten, ‘Russia’s Responsibility to Protect Ukraine,’ Justice in Conflict, March 2014, accessed 20 February 2015, http://justiceinconflict.org/2014/03/05/russias-responsibility-to-protect-in-ukraine/.

[20] ‘Transcript: Putin says Russia will protect the rights of Russians abroad,’ The Washington Post, March 2014, accessed 20 February 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/transcript-putin-says-russia-will-protect-the-rights-of-russians-abroad/2014/03/18/432a1e60-ae99-11e3-a49e-76adc9210f19_story.html.

[21] Linklater, A. ‘The problems of harm in world politics.’ International Affairs 78: 319-38.

[22] M. Eljarh, ‘The Smart Way to Intervene in Libya,’ Foreign Policy, 17 February 2015, accessed 20 February 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/17/the-smart-way-to-intervene-in-libya/.

[23] G. Mshedlishvili, ‘Russia-Georgia War: Moscow’s Loss?’ Chatham House, April 2013, accessed 20 February 2015, https://www.chathamhouse.org/media/comment/view/193878.

[24] De Waal, A. ‘Darfur and the Failure of the Responsibility to Protect.’ International Affairs 83(6): 1039-54.

[25] Williams, P. D. and Bellamy, A.J. ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the Crisis in Darfur.’ Security Dialogue, 36 (1): 27-47.

About the Author 

Anna Kruglova is a Fellow at ERA Institute. She holds M.Sc. in Security Studies from UCL and is completing M.A. in International Conflict Studies at King’s College. Ms. Kruglova worked at MEC International, The Bow Group and Integrity UK.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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