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The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P/RtoP) is a relatively recent and still-evolving international security and human rights concept in international relations that, as mentioned in a United Nations (UN) University essay on the subject, addresses the failure of states—whether unable or unwilling—to protect their populations from mass atrocities. The concept, which was introduced as a legal notion by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, was endorsed unanimously by UN member states four years later, in 2005. The R2P doctrine states that populations should be protected from four mass atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, though these are not defined) and is conventionally understood to consist of three aspects, or ‘pillars’. These were outlined in a 2009 report by the UN Secretary-General and have been summarised in a UN background briefing on the concept as follows:

  • The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their
  • The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  • The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the UN Charter.

Information presented in this Note has been compiled to provide background reading for Members ahead of the debate on this subject scheduled to take place on 16 July 2015. It provides background information on the development of R2P and surveys instances in which the concept has been either invoked or considered by the UN Security Council. It does not address the linked issues of humanitarian intervention and state building, but summarises challenges to the concept and the position of the UK Government on the doctrine.

Documents to download

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