On Our Watch

What Became of The Responsibility to Protect Principle?

This 2005 U.N. doctrine states nations can't hide behind their sovereignty. If crimes against humanity are occurring within a nation's border, the world community can intervene - with force if necessary.

James Traub
The New York Times

Explain to me "Responsibility to Protect," ... what does it actually amount to in the end?

Well, what it amounts to in the end so far is nothing. This idea that there is this responsibility to protect ... -- it was a product originally of the war in Kosovo, where the Security Council was trying to pass a resolution that would justify, that would mandate military force, preventing the loss of it from continuing savage brutalities in Kosovo. [It] failed because the Russians balked at it, and ultimately NATO acted without them.

So this raised the question: Under what circumstances, under what aegis, can international law justify this gross violation of sovereignty? Kofi Annan began talking about this in 1999 and made this kind of the centerpiece of that year and of his speech before the General Assembly in which he said this is something we must do.

[It] caused tremendous outcry. Most of the developing world was against it. He was sharply criticized for doing it. At that same time, in fact, a Canadian group began and paneled a team to think about this, and ultimately produced a report with the title "Responsibility to Protect," which laid out the justification for this.

So this is an idea that was cooking in the world, and when Kofi Annan decided to try for a very ambitious reform of the U.N. in 2004 and 2005, this is always one of the elements that the U.N. must declare itself in favor of this; that this is, in fact, a moral imperative which trumps the right of sovereignty. It did, and it is now part of international laws and something that the U.N. has committed itself to and all the countries have committed themselves to.

Now, what does it mean? Doesn't mean anything unless there is the political willingness to act. In Darfur there was no such willingness. If there was another Darfur tomorrow, there would still be no such willingness, because unless individual countries are willing in the end to say, "Yes, we believe this is such a profound imperative that we are willing to send troops there, and therefore endanger the lives of young men and women," it won't happen.

Does that mean all these words are meaningless? No, I don't think so. Maybe I'm being naive. I think you have to first establish these norms in order to hold people to the norms. The norm is not self-executing -- quite the contrary. But you have to be able to hold people to the promise that they've made, and so now the world has made that promise. It is now a long way from this to causing that promise to be made good. That is the work of future years.

And how then does the "Responsibility to Protect" get passed in 2005? ...

Because I think few of the countries that passed it actually thought that it would lead to action. Therefore many of the countries that don't really accept it decided it wasn't worth being seen as a bad guy. ...

Sir Kieran Prendergast
U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, 1997-'05

I was instrumental in drafting the secretary-general's great speech on responsibility on humanitarian intervention in September '99 which was in a way a response to Kosovo, to try and square this circle of the imperative of intervention or the Responsibility to Protect with the obligations of international law. And they're very difficult to square.

I was struck that within an hour or a couple of hours of the secretary-general's speech, which I personally think is one of the very best that he made in his entire 10 years in office, the president of Algeria, for example, had made a scathing response, presenting it ... as something which was imposed by the rich on the poor, by the strong on the weak. And at a reception the same evening given for him by the president of the General Assembly, who happened to be the foreign minister of Namibia, the foreign minister in his welcoming remarks rejected the very existence of a concept of humanitarian intervention.

Then I went to a summit of the Group of 77, [a U.N. organization of developing nations,] in Havana, and they put out a communiqué which stated very clearly that they, too, rejected that very concept. And the nonaligned foreign ministers had a meeting where they rejected the concept of humanitarian intervention.

So it's a very neuralgic concept for the Third World. I think the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Allan Rock, did a brilliant humanitarian intervention of his own in managing to slip in a paragraph, a reference to the Responsibility to Protect, into the final document of the summit of September 2005.

But the truth is that when it comes to it, the great majority of the member states don't mean it. They attach much more weight and importance to maintaining the principle of national sovereignty and noninterference than they do to any responsibility to protect.

I'm sorry to say it. I mean, I don't like it, but nevertheless, it is the truth.

Romeo Dallaire
U.N. force commander, Rwanda, 1993-'94

photo of Dallaire

We are now no more in the era of peacekeeping and that sort of consensus in the classic sense between two belligerents ... coming to a peace agreement and then you need this sort of neutral referee. That era is gone. ... Nor are we in the era anymore of simply going into a country, beating up the people, winning the war and then throwing a Marshall Plan at it. That era is also gone. It doesn't exist.

And the reason they don't exist is because the solutions to these problems cannot be simple; the problems are enormously complex. They're intrinsic to the nature of the country: ethnicity, religion, tribalism, power sharing, internal economics and so on. ...

And so what you need is a whole new generation of tools, and that means you do use a heavy-handed diplomatic set of instruments, ... like economic sanctions, divestment, things like that, but also limiting the ability of Sudanese leadership to maneuver outside of their own country, at best.

But at the same time, you get a bunch of people preparing the contingency plans to apply "Responsibility to Protect." That is the doctrine that says if there's a massive abuse of human rights by a government or that it can't stop it, then the international community has the right, the responsibility, to intervene, and that the General Assembly accepted in September, 2005. ...

And in articulating that, they essentially came to the conclusion that sovereignty is no more an absolute: You cannot hide behind sovereignty when you are massively abusing people in your country through as extent to genocide or through simply massive crimes against humanity. You cannot let countries say, "I'm a sovereign state, tough."

And so they came to that conclusion that under the precept of human rights, it is unacceptable. And the solution to that was a whole series of methodologies, with diplomatic and humanitarian [options] and so on but, in extremis, also the responsibility to use force. ...

And where we are now [with Darfur] is that the Security Council has taken some interesting mandates to provide capabilities; they haven't gone as far as Responsibility [to Protect] but they're getting close to it. But they're looking behind them and they're seeing that the states don't want to participate. And there is where the thing breaks down. ... The essence of the problem is the political maturity of world leaders to take the responsibility towards humanity that this era calls for. ...

Now that we've opened up the door on sovereignty, ... we might be able to open up another door on sovereignty and say, nations must provide capabilities to the U.N. So Canada must have ready a battalion or two, a bunch of NGOs, humanitarian aid money, diplomats to be called upon by the Secretary General. ... So I think we have more chance of fiddling with arrangements like that, or, as an example, the African Union creates a regional capability, the African standby force.

Alex de Waal
Co-author, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War

There are people who believe the U.N. should have a force ready to be deployed and with the "Responsibility to Protect," a resolution, perhaps deployed without permission -- not necessarily in Darfur but in the future. Are you opposed to it in principle?

One of the big problems with peacekeeping is the very, very slow speed of deployment. The U.N. has approved this hybrid [U.N.-African Union] force in June of 2007. It probably won't be fully stood up until sometime in early 2008. There should be a much, much more rapid way of deploying those troops.

A separate issue is whether the U.N. or any other force actually ought to go in and essentially declare war, actually have an offensive military capability to stop an ongoing genocide as NATO did in Kosovo, for example. Let's have no illusions; let's make no pretenses: That is not a peacekeeping operation; that is actually an offensive military action. It is an act of war, and it will be interpreted by the adversary in those terms. And it may be a just war. It may be a war that is ethically correct to fight. But if it is ethically correct to fight, it has to be won, because nothing is worse than a war that goes wrong.

Mukesh Kapila
U.N. humanitarian coordinator, Sudan, 2003-'04

I think the "Responsibility to Protect" is a very good doctrine. I think it is a very convenient and it's a very lucid framework for international action to prevent crimes against humanity and promote peace along the lines that we're talking about.

... my disappointment with the "Responsibility to Protect" so far is, basically, I would like to know how much protection it has brought about. And certainly, even though the "Responsibility to Protect" ideas were prevalent at the time of Darfur, certainly they would not have prevented what went on in Darfur.

It is because we don't have a sharp enough system that has got enough elements built in that allow action to be taking place and sanctions to be put in place.

Eric Reeves
Darfur activist

photo of Reeves

I think we make a mistake by looking at the United Nations in its present form as anything like a mechanism for stopping genocide. Either the U.N. changes dramatically, or the international community needs to devise another mechanism for genocide prevention.

Juan Mendez, who recently ended his tenure as special adviser to the secretary-general for the prevention of genocide, his job was a half-time job. What could be more telling of the United Nations and its response to genocide than it makes the special adviser to the secretary general on genocide a half-time position? ...

I don't have answers about how the U.N. can be reformed, or how a coalition of democratic countries and others that believe firmly in the principle of their Responsibility to Protect -- I don't know how that can be institutionalized. But I think if we look to the U.N. in its present form as an international means of preventing genocide, I think Darfur presents overwhelming evidence that this is not, this is not possible. This institution cannot do the job. ...

home . introduction . watch online . chronology . interviews . analysis . join the discussion
producer's chat . readings & links  map   . site map . dvd & transcript . press reaction
producer's journal . credits . privacy policy . journalistic guidelines . FRONTLINE series home . wgbh . pbs

posted november 20, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation