Summer 2015 (29.2) Feature

The Responsibility to Protect Turns Ten

Ten years since its adoption by the UN General Assembly, the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) has become an established international norm associated with positive changes to the way that international society responds to genocide and mass atrocities. In its first decade, RtoP has moved from being a controversial and indeterminate concept seldom utilized by international society to a norm utilized almost habitually. This is an assessment that stands in contrast to the widespread view that RtoP is associated with “growing controversy,” but is one that rests on evidence of state practice. Strong agreement on the meaning and scope of the principle has emerged in the annual informal dialogues on RtoP held by the General Assembly; the principle has been unanimously reaffirmed in its entirety no fewer than four times by the UN Security Council and has informed more than twenty-five other Security Council resolutions; and RtoP is now being utilized by the wider community of UN member states. With only a few exceptions, states accept that they have committed to RtoP and agree on the principle’s core elements.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed in 2012, international debate about RtoP has moved from a focus on the merits of the principle itself to matters of implementation. Organizations and states once considered hostile to RtoP have themselves begun to utilize the norm. At the September 2014 General Assembly Sixth Informal Interactive Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect: Fulfilling our Collective Responsibility, China described RtoP as a “prudential norm,” argued that “states should establish relevant policies and mechanisms” for implementing it, and noted that it was appropriate for international society to adopt measures to support RtoP, including the use of force “as a last resort”; India noted that RtoP “was agreed [upon] by all” as early as 2005; Indonesia offered emphatic support, saying it “fully subscribes to the finest purposes and objectives of the concept of RtoP”; Nigeria declared that “RtoP is apt, based on humanitarian and human rights law, representing a global conceptual and policy shift in the notion of sovereignty and security”; Iran noted that “we cannot agree more with the Secretary-General” and his approach to RtoP; the Philippines observed that “we subscribe to our shared responsibility” in relation to RtoP; and Argentina declared that “since the beginning, Argentina supports the concept of RtoP.” These statements—all from the global South and including governments considered quite hostile to RtoP—provide strong support for the idea that RtoP, once considered deeply controversial, is now an established international norm.

The tenth anniversary of the adoption of RtoP by world leaders provides a useful opportunity to evaluate the progress made and the challenges that lie ahead. With that in mind, this article proceeds in four parts. First, it sets out the case for thinking of RtoP as an international norm. Second, the article defends this proposition against two prominent critiques: (1) that there is little observable change in international behavior since the genesis of the norm, and (2) that RtoP considerations have not influenced behavior. The third section briefly examines some of the principal reasons for the apparent shift in international society’s attitude toward RtoP. In conclusion, the fourth section highlights some of the limits and enduring challenges to RtoP.

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