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The Responsibility to Protect and Prevention of Mass Atrocities

By Ms. Jelena Pia-Comella* 


The principle of the "responsibility to protect" (RtoP) was first enunciated in the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), set up by the Canadian Government in December 2001. 

When a State fails to protect its people from genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the responsibility shifts to the international community that is entitled to act through the UN Security Council. The first application of this principle dates back to 2006, when the Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops in Darfur.

The international community continues not only to be challenged by preventing crises before they occur, but also in addressing them in a timely and effective manner. The situation of the Rohingya population, as well as the ongoing crises in Burundi, Syria and Yemen call for an urgent renewed leadership and engagement in putting prevention up front. The international community has a wide range of treaties and norms to address the root causes of armed conflict and prevent its recurrence. The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) norm, for instance, has set new standards to build a more inclusive and legitimate multilateral system to more effectively address peace and security.

RtoP offers a scope of opportunities and strategies to reinforce national sovereignty, national legislations and institutions to prevent the commission of mass atrocity crimes. Implementing RtoP is needed now more than ever if the international community is determined to prevent mass atrocities once and for all. Also, it is important to note that RtoP offers a comprehensive framework for implementing the atrocities prevention agenda, emphasizing a full spectrum of tools from diplomatic, legal, economic, humanitarian and non-coercive military measures.

The January 2009 UN Secretary General’s report on implementing the RtoP norm proposes a terminological framework for understanding the Responsibility to Protect and outlines measures and actors involved in implementing the three-pillar approach:


  • Pillar 1 stresses that States have the primary responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity;
  • Pillar 2 addresses the commitment of the international community to provide assistance to States in building capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assist those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out;
  • Pillar 3 focuses on the responsibility of the international community to take timely and decisive action to prevent and halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity when a State is unwilling or unable to protect its populations.


It is important to specify that there is no sequence among the three pillars; they are all mutually reinforcing and can occur simultaneously. First and foremost, the responsibility to protect falls on States, but the international community can and must assist where possible, in order to build a State’s capacity to fulfill its RtoP obligations. Moreover, the international community should engage with States to encourage the use of diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means from the outset of a crisis rather than wait until atrocities are ongoing. The use of force can only be undertaken collectively, with Security Council authorization and in accordance with the UN Charter, when peaceful means are inadequate.


Since 2009, nine reports and UN General Assembly (UNGA) informal, interactive dialogues on RtoP have taken place to galvanize further understanding and support for the norm.

  • The reports and discussions in 2010 and 2013 highlighted the importance of establishing early-warning mechanisms and strengthening State capacity to uphold its responsibility to protect and prevent. Reinforcing national mechanisms, institutions, and legislation to identify “red flags” will only strengthen the sovereignty and capacity of a State to prevent the commission of mass atrocities. It is in 2010 that the Governments of Denmark and Ghana established the national RtoP Focal Points initiative. The national focal points network meet annually to discuss good practices, strategize, raise awareness on capacity building.


  • In 2014, the Office of the Special Adviser on Genocide Prevention launched, in our view, a paramount tool – the UN framework of analysis for atrocity crimes, which is a tool for prevention to support States and different stakeholders in utilizing an early-warning mechanism to avoid the commission of mass atrocities. Indeed, the framework capacitates States in identifying 14 risk factors, and their relevant indicators, of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law to prevent these factors from leading to the commission of atrocity crimes. The framework is an analysis and risk assessment tool, which uses this specific set of risk factors and indicators to help identify and prevent atrocity crimes, but also to demonstrate that atrocity crimes rarely happen suddenly — they often evolve and develop over time. Therefore, well before tensions escalate to violence, the Framework shows that there are many opportunities to act and to utilize early warning mechanisms in order to prevent the perpetration of these crimes.


  • The reports and dialogue in 2013 and in 2016 highlighted and clarified what “international assistance” means. Initiatives such as the Group of Friends (Currently co-chaired by the Italy and Qatar), the Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes launched in 2014 by Switzerland and Costa Rica for example emphasize the preventive and capacity-building aspect of the RtoP norm.


  • The 2017 report of the Secretary General highlighted the notion of accountability in a two-prong approach: first by holding states and the international community accountable to their commitments and obligations, in particular as States have the primary responsibility (sovereignty) in upholding their RtoP and; secondly by recognizing the need to end impunity for mass atrocity crimes as a preventive mechanism and to avoid the recurrence of the commission of these crimes.


All these years, Civil Society and like-minded member states have joined forces to raise-awareness and galvanize support for the norm and to mainstream the norm throughout the United Nations system, at the regional and and national levels as a preventive mechanism. 6 September 2017 marked possibly a new era for the norm as the United Nations General Assembly convened the ninth annual informal, interactive dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), where Member States, panelists, and civil society organizations shared statements on RtoP and the recent report by the Secretary-General on the implementation of the norm through the strengthening of accountability for prevention. On 15 September, the UN General Assembly voted in favor of including RtoP on its formal agenda for the 72nd session, with 113 Member States in favor, 21 against and 17 abstentions (42 Member States did not participate). The ICRtoP has been involved in advocacy for and discussion on the formalization of the inclusion of RtoP since the first UNGA resolution on the norm in 2009. This year in particular, the ICRtoP advocated for support of the Australian- and Ghanaian-led initiative, which led to the formalization of RtoP on the UNGA’s agenda for the current session.


The inclusion of RtoP on the formal agenda is an important step forward, particularly for both the mainstreaming of the norm throughout the UN system and the domestication of the norm at the regional and national levels. By including the RtoP as a formal agenda item, the UN will be more likely to and could be required to report on the implementation of the norm. Also, it will require Member States to develop and produce formal, on-the-record statements on RtoP, which will likely lead to greater direct input from capitals. This should increase the discussion on atrocity prevention outside the UN framework and bring RtoP to focus in regional and national contexts. It also demonstrates a commitment by many Member States and an acknowledgement of the prioritization of the protection of populations from atrocity crimes, particularly in a time of frequent gridlock in the Security Council.


The ICRtoP has already begun bilateral discussions with Member States, UN representatives, and civil society organizations to start strategizing on how to capitalize on the momentum gained in 2017, with the aim of institutionalizing RtoP permanently on the UNGA formal agenda, in line with the recommendations of the Secretary-General and 2005 World Summit document. The ICRtoP would also like to see the continuation of the annual UNGA dialogue on RtoP and the preparatory panels informing the writing of the Secretary-General’s annual report on the norm. 


*Deputy Executive Director - WFM-IGP - International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect and By Ms. Brittany Roser, Program Officer – International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect 
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