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Shaun Randol: Debating the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine

Adopted in 2005 at the United Nations’ World Summit, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) represents a remarkable evolutionary step for the international state system. R2P, which was pushed by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, seeks to ensure that another Rwanda (or Cambodia or Holocaust) will never happen again. It argues that states have the responsibility to protect their populations from mass atrocities, namely genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. And, more controversially, where states are unable or unwilling to provide this security, the onus of protection falls to the larger international community. This element of a transfer of a responsibility—from individual states to the broader global community of states—marks an radical step in world order, a further movement away from state-centric anarchy and ad hoc coalition-building toward collective action. R2P has its detractors, however. Defenders of the supremacy of state sovereignty warn that R2P undermines the status quo, Westphalian system. Others caution that R2P is no more than an excuse for imperially minded big states to intervene in the affairs of smaller states. This latter argument has much traction in the case of the UN’s mission in Haiti. Yet, as Jonas Claes argues in a recent R2P debate on The Mantle, “in general, those fragile states most likely to end up on the receiving end of R2P-inspired military operations seem very supportive of R2P.” Practically speaking, implementing R2P presents a challenge as well. It is difficult to motivate states into action that requires blood and treasure where they see little national interest. And still others, namely the United States, have reservations about putting their own soldiers under the command of other governments or the United Nations. “The political will to use military action to halt crimes on the ground has been markedly absent,” notes Savita Pawnday, the Office and Outreach Coordinator for the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, in a provocative essay. “Thus, the problem of the fragile, weak or non-existent state is not applicable of R2P, but rather, its operationalization and the need for a wide range of measures that take into account the different political realities of conflicts.” And despite its adoption by the UN General Assembly four years ago, R2P has barely been used as a means to protect vulnerable populations. The continuing tragedies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and to some extent in Gaza, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka—where a lack of international intervention allows ongoing bloodletting—are cases in point. Still, R2P remains an emerging norm with many pitfalls, both operationally and philosophically. Despite this, in September of this year, the UNGA adopted resolution A/RES/63/308, which further supports R2P as a norm and seeks ways to move it forward. Questions surrounding R2P remain. The Mantle, a new online forum for critique and debate, recently launched its inaugural roundtable discussion, “Whose Responsibility to Protect?” This first roundtable centers on issues underpinning R2P. Five young professionals, including moderator Marie Mainil, steeped in R2P debate, grapple with the complexities of the doctrine, such as the responsibility of protection in “failed states,” corralling the political will—or lack thereof—to implement R2P, and more. I invite you to view their thought-provoking discussion on The Mantle and to join in on the debate as well. Shaun Randol is an associate fellow at the World Policy Institute and the founder and editor of The Mantle (

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