Tenth Anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect: A Focus on Prevention

News.- On 19 November 2015, the United Nations held a conference in collaboration with the Graduate Institute and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, during Geneva Peace Week, from 16 to 20 November 2015. The goal of this conference was to reflect on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P): ten years after a global endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect, what has been accomplished and what are the biggest challenges that we still need to overcome? This conference was a great opportunity to explore ways to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity as well as ethnic cleansing.


Michael Møller, Director General of the United Nations, opened the discussion by reminding everyone of the three pillars of R2P: first of all, the state carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. This is followed by the responsibility of the international community who also has an important role to play, since it needs to assist states in fulfilling this responsibility. Finally, the international community should use diplomatic and humanitarian means to protect populations from these crimes. And if a state fails to protect its people, or is itself, the perpetrator of these crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, which can include the collective use of force through the UN Security Council. After reminding these three main pillars, Mr. Møller shared the current challenges that we are facing today, which includes making sure that early warning mechanisms are implemented, as well as also reminding ourselves that “prevention is the exception and not the rule”. Today, we have the opportunity to further those challenges as well as strengthen R2P overall. This will help humanitarian actors as well as human rights communities to come closer together.

Prevention remains a crucial commitment

Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the R2P, pointed out the important steps that have been taken since R2P was adopted in 2005, including institutionalizing the R2P inside the Security Council and inside the UN, where 52 countries have appointed focal points to work on the preventive aspects of R2P. He also reminded us that we are now at a turning point in world history with over 60 million people displaced, which makes us wonder more than ever, what role R2P can play in the prevention of the most heinous crimes. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, also made sure to emphasize the importance of prevention in his video message, by saying that “efforts have not matched the human suffering in the world, transgressions must stop immediately. The current protection needs are indeed enormous and prevention remains a crucial commitment”.

The importance of the collective security

Following his speech, Jennifer Welsh, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Responsibility to Protect, mentioned the importance of the collective security to protect people from war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The responsibility starts, in fact, in the states where these people live, but the international community definitely has to assist these countries in “providing emergency protection and assistance where it is required”. After many years of discussion on R2P, the consensus among states is that we need to invest more in prevention and we need to broaden the R2P beyond New York. Finally, she reminded that the R2P agenda from the 1990s remains “a living agenda today”. This is indeed a collective agenda, which involves every single state.

Focus on early warnings

Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as a very practical approach to the topic due to his position. He began mentioning the current issue of the refugees, a crucial issue linked to violent conflicts. These conflicts trigger displacement, which not only go behind borders, but also across continents. He believes that we now need to “focus on early warnings as well as oriented protection”. Davide Rodogno, Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute, also mentioned the importance of paying attention to the early signs and warnings, which might allow for horrors to be avoided. In the past, we witnessed too many situations where the government waited for it to escalate and then turned into a disaster. Today, with the monitoring tools available as well as being fully equipped, we have an important role to play: we need to enhance and invigorate prevention.

Including non-State actors in the solution

Elisabeth Decrey Warner, Executive President of Geneva Call, a non-governmental organization that engages armed non-State actors towards the respect of international humanitarian norms, reminded us that today, conflicts are no longer between states, but mainly between states and non-state actors. 40% of the world population are living in countries with an ongoing non international armed conflict and these non-state actors can definitely have an impact on the population. It is important that we start making them “part of the solution and not only part of the problem”. When it comes to armed groups, she emphasizes that there is more than Daesh and Boko Haram: other groups have different behaviors as well and Geneva Call works to educate them. R2P is mainly a state-centric concept, as it has been “elaborated by states, for the states and its implementation has been decided by states”. Armed groups are most of the times, seen as perpetrators, but they can in fact also play a positive role in the protection of the population. It is important to train them on the respect of IHL as well as human rights norms and finally, train them to take positive measures. We need to support the international community in trying to move forward with this process.

The panel ended with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who addressed the audience through a video message, saying that, “across the world, we are seeing violations of human rights, we face a brutality that is sickening.” People are being tortured by perpetrators that are certain that they will not be held accountable. Today, R2P should not only be a New York issue, because the responsibility is urgent and prevention of human rights violations is at the core of R2P. Intervening only after the harm has been done means that we failed to protect the most vulnerable people. He ended his speech by reminding everyone that we definitely need to contribute to prevention as “our common responsibility as human beings is to protect other people.”

Tamara Kloos

Research Assistant at CIPADH

Sources :

Geneva Call (2015). http://www.genevacall.org/who-we-are/

Geneva Peace Week (2015). http://www.gpplatform.ch/geneva-peace-week-16-20-november-2015

R2P (2015). An Introduction to the Responsibility to Protect. IN: R2P (Online) http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/about-rtop Accessed on November 19th 2015.