The Responsibility to Protect and the Responsibility while Protecting: Friends or Foes?

September 2012

Since its endorsement at the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations, the “responsibility to protect” (“R2P”) has become a key concept on the prevention of atrocity crimes. It rests on three pillars: the protection responsibilities of the individual states, international assistance as well as timely and decisive collective action. Parts of the concept have remained controversial, in particular the third pillar which comprises military force as the means of last resort. In late 2011, the notion of the “responsibility while protecting” (“RwP”) was introduced by Brazil. A Brazilian concept paper on the responsibility while protecting indicates a series of principles, parameters and procedures, most of which constrain recourse to the use of force and partly even to pillar three action more generally. On September 5, 2012, the General Assembly is scheduled to hold its informal interactive dialogue on the report that has recently been submitted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the third pillar of the responsibility to protect. In the run-up to this debate, the Global Governance Institute takes a look at the impact which the initiative on the responsibility while protecting may have, or has already had, on the concept of the responsibility to protect and its implementation. It identifies overlaps and complementarities, but also tensions between the two notions. In a first informal exchange of views on the RwP initiative, member states reaffirmed their commitment to R2P in the form that had been agreed at the 2005 World Summit. They expressed support for some of the guidelines on the use of force which RwP proposes and which had also been part of the original R2P concept. By contrast, they predominantly rejected or modified those other elements of RwP which could invite a revision of the existing consensus on R2P and impede timely and decisive collective action. The upcoming General Assembly dialogue is now likely to be a crossroads for the future direction of this debate.

Since 2001, and especially since its endorsement by the heads of state and government at the United Nations (UN) World Summit in 2005, the “responsibility to protect” (“R2P”) has become a key concept on the prevention of atrocity crimes. Still, parts of the concept have remained controversial, first amongst them the possibility that military action may be taken in the name of protecting populations from grave human rights abuses. Apprehensions that R2P may serve to legitimate the use of force were heightened by the international intervention in Libya in 2011. Some UN member states, including members of the Security Council, subsequently criticized as excessive the way in which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had interpreted and implemented the mandate under Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011). South Africa, one of the non-permanent members of the Council in 2011 that had voted in favour of Resolution 1973, openly labelled NATO actions a “flagrant abuse” of the resolution (South Africa 2012). Against this backdrop, the new notion of the “responsibility while protecting” (“RwP”) was introduced by Brazil, one of the five members of the Security Council that had abstained in the vote on Resolution 1973.2 In opening the general debate of the UN General Assembly’s sixty-sixth session, on September 21, 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff warned that interventions in the past had resulted in painful consequences that continued to haunt the world. Accordingly, she demanded that, alongside the responsibility to protect, further discussion was necessary on the “responsibility in protecting” (Brazil 2011a). The matter was subsequently taken up by Brazil’s Permanent Representative during the Security Council open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict on November 9, 2011, in a statement delivered on behalf of the Brazilian Minister for External Relations, as well as in a concept paper entitled “Responsibility while protecting: elements for the development and promotion of a concept” The objective of this analysis paper is to assess the impact, positive as well as negative, which the new notion of the responsibility while protecting may have on the evolution and implementation of the responsibility to protect. For this purpose, it proceeds in four steps: a brief sketch of the “responsibility to protect” framework (1.), a summary of the “responsibility while protecting” initiative (2.), an analysis of potential tensions, complementarities and overlaps between the two approaches (3.), and, finally, a first assessment of the echo which the RwP proposal has caused in the international community (4.). The analysis will reveal that the Brazilian initiative comprises a number of principles, some of which refine the responsibility to protect whereas others would amount to a partial but significant revision of the existing consensus if they were pursued in their intitial form