International Relations Responsibility to Protect
Aidan Hehir
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0024


Though a relatively new term, having it origins in the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) has come to dominate the debate on how the international community should respond to intrastate crises (see International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001, cited under General Overviews). The concept was established in the wake of NATO’s controversial intervention in Kosovo in 1999 as a means to reconcile sovereignty and human rights protection by reorienting the debate away from the international community’s “right to intervene” to the host state’s responsibility toward its own citizens. R2P’s underlying principle is that states have the primary responsibility for protecting their citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes; should states fail in this respect, the international community assumes this responsibility. While R2P is closely associated with “humanitarian intervention,” it encompasses more than just determining the grounds for military action for human protection; the concept includes issues related to the prevention of mass atrocities, nonforcible conflict resolution, and post-conflict reconstruction. R2P was recognized in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (cited under United Nations Documents) by UN member states, thereby providing the concept with a formal status, albeit a somewhat ambiguous one. Since the ICISS report the concept has evolved, and both its meaning and status have become sources of significant debate, particularly whether R2P constitutes a norm or a legal principle. The concept has, nonetheless, undeniably entered the international political lexicon; the UN Security Council, General Assembly, and Secretary-General have referred to R2P many times since 2005, while a number of think tanks and pressure groups have been established to publicize the concept and champion its implementation. Debate rages as to the efficacy of R2P, with some advocates claiming it has revolutionary significance, while others argue it is merely a slogan that does not significantly influence the behavior of states. The 2011 intervention in Libya was welcomed by many prominent proponents of R2P as evidence of its impact, but the subsequent crisis in Syria dampened the enthusiasm.

General Overviews

While “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) is a term that is regularly discussed in academia, the media, and at international political forums, significant contestation (if not outright confusion) exists as to its precise meaning. The term, though new, is a modern rendering of an old debate (see History of Humanitarian Intervention), and interdisciplinary overviews on the ethical and legal questions that predate R2P, such as Lang 2003, provide essential contextual insight. The original report on the Responsibility to Protect, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001, constitutes a succinct definition of R2P’s initial manifestation, though the concept has changed in important respects since its publication. A number of think tanks and research centers (see Global Civil Society) have been established to clarify R2P as well as lobby for its implementation, such as the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Many within academia have sought to identify the parameters of R2P and dispel the various misunderstandings that surround it, as seen in Bellamy 2010. This is mirrored in the efforts made by policymakers and prominent proponents of the concept to clarify R2P and identify evidence of its efficacy, as seen in Evans 2008 and Luck 2011. Knight and Egerton 2012 and Hehir 2013 are indicative of a growing body of literature that has sought to present an objective understanding of R2P and the broader conceptual issues and debates that surround it.

  • Bellamy, Alex. Global Politics and the Responsibility to Protect. London: Routledge, 2010.

    An in-depth and positive analysis of the origins and nature of R2P that details the various junctures in R2P’s evolution, how they impacted on the concept, and its contemporary relevance today.

  • Evans, Gareth. The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008.

    Evans, one of the ICISS cochairs, has been a vocal proponent of the Responsibility to Protect concept. Here he defines the remit of R2P, contrasting his version with the erroneous representations propounded by critics and overzealous supporters, and provides empirical observations to demonstrate that R2P works and will, so he claims, continue to positively influence future responses to mass atrocities.

  • Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

    This NGO was established to promote the concept of R2P. The website is a useful repository and provides an extensive overview of R2P, including links to core documents, Secretary-General reports, Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, and key commentaries.

  • Hehir, Aidan. Humanitarian Intervention: An Introduction. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2013.

    Written for those relatively new to the subject, this textbook provides a comprehensive overview of the issues and debates central to humanitarian intervention and R2P. Includes a detailed focus on R2P, its meaning and evolution, as well as five case-study chapters.

  • International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Ottawa, ON: International Development Research Centre, 2001.

    The original ICISS report, which has served as a primary focus for the debate since; while R2P today has undeniably changed since this initial rendering, the report is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the concept.

  • Knight, Andy, and Frasier Egerton, eds. The Routledge Handbook of the Responsibility to Protect. London: Routledge, 2012.

    A comprehensive cross-disciplinary introduction to R2P, which boasts an impressive array of experts. Details the origins, contours, and implementation of R2P, and includes analyses of a number of case studies.

  • Lang, Anthony, ed. Just Intervention. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003.

    Provides a comprehensive interdisciplinary reflection on the dilemmas underlying R2P and humanitarian intervention generally, and situates these in broader historical, legal, and ethical traditions and debates. Case-study chapters provide complementary qualitative insights

  • Luck, Edward C. “The Responsibility to Protect: The First Decade.” Global Responsibility to Protect 3.4 (2011): 387–399.

    DOI: 10.1163/187598411X603025

    Dr Luck served as UN Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect from 2008 to 2012. In this article he provides a positive overview of R2P’s efficacy since its inception and attempts to clarify its purview.

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