R2P at 10: From Iraq to South Sudan, does it make a difference?

Since R2P’s adoption, has the international community been more likely to respond to crises?

By: /
4 May, 2015
A Yazidi fighter who recently joined the Kurdish People's Protection Units gestures while securing a road in Mount Sinjar, August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Rodi Said
By: Alex Bellamy
Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), there is a wealth of self-reflection and no shortage of self-doubt about what has been achieved. There is no doubt that R2P is now an international norm. It commands a long list of UN resolutions. Governments no longer question their commitment to R2P or doubt their responsibilities. Even during the most heated debates, about the use of force and regime change in Libya, states did not renege on their agreement. Even as it criticized NATO’s actions, South Africa told the UN General Assembly that “going back on the 2005 consensus” on R2P “was not an option.”

Yet, looking at the suspected genocide of the Yazidis in Iraq, the fate of Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk trapped between Assad’s barrel bombs and ISIS’ beheadings, the descent of Libya and Yemen into chaos, and the resurgence of mass killing and atrocity crimes in South Sudan, it is easy to despair. Clearly, R2P is no overnight panacea to the problem of mass atrocities. But, then, nobody ever claimed that it would be. “Ending mass atrocities once and for all” is not something that can be achieved in a single decade. But just as it is hard to see how things would be better without R2P, so too it is important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good by ignoring what has been achieved because of the all too obvious evidence of what has not been.

It is true that the “Arab Spring” has helped nudge the global downwards trend in mass violence in the opposite direction, but the overall macro trends are still towards decline. In the past few decades, East Asia has experienced a dramatic and sustained decline in mass atrocities. So too has Latin America and, more recently, West Africa where, with the help of R2P, countries such as Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea pulled themselves back from the brink, much as Kenya did in 2008 – with the help of Kofi Annan’s intervention and R2P. And, compared to the 1990s, still described by some as a “golden age of humanitarianism,” when the fires of mass atrocity break out now, the international community is more likely to respond. It is also significantly more likely to prioritize protection when it does. Evidence is starting to show that criminal prosecutions for atrocity crimes do have a deterrent effect, that the deployment of international missions does reduce the chances of a conflict reigniting, and that when peacekeepers are deployed with protection mandates to particular regions, the civilians in those regions are much less likely to be attacked. That is underlying progress.

Some significant taboos have been broken. Until Libya, never before had the Security Council authorized the use of force to protect civilians without the consent of the recognized government of that country. Although not a precedent likely to be repeated often, the authorization of force without a government’s consent in order to protect people is no longer rejected by the Council as a matter of principle. Until Syria, the Security Council had never authorized the delivery of humanitarian aid into a country without the government’s consent. Now it has, removing an important obstacle and reinforcing the view that humanitarian access should never be denied on the grounds of sovereignty.

Until Libya, never before had the Security Council authorized the use of force to protect civilians without the consent of the recognized government of that country.

And this has at times made a difference on the ground. After the town of Sinjar in Iraq fell to ISIS, in August 2014, Iraq’s Yazidis were issued a chilling ultimatum: covert or die. Most fled, but some were captured. Many Yazidi men were beheaded — some suggest that 5,000 Yazidi men may have been killed. Women and girls were subjected to public mass rape and many were sold into slavery. Those that fled faced an uncertain future. But still ISIS pursued them, issuing threats by text message. One such text, read: “Where are you going to go? I swear [to] God I will cut you into pieces… We are coming for you, you pig, you enemy of God.” Many Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar. The U.S. and its allies responded by deploying Special Forces to assess the situation, dropping urgently needed supplies and using targeted force to prevent ISIS reaching the mountain. The decision to help the Yazidis was one squarely associated with R2P — a notion echoed in President Barack Obama’s statement on the campaign.

“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.  We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.  That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

A few months earlier, and more than 3,000 kilometers to the south, another major protection crisis erupted in South Sudan. In December 2013, inter-communal violence between the Dinka and Nuer broke out in Juba and spread rapidly, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee. The UN mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, had a mandate to protect civilians and help the government fulfill its R2P. When around 85,000 civilians sought shelter from the UN, UNMISS decided to open the gates of its bases and provide safe refuge. This was the first time that a UN peacekeeping operation had provided sanctuary to such a large number of people. Two decades earlier, a mission called the “UN Protection Force” in Bosnia had turned its base over to Bosnian Serb militia in Srebrenica, with disastrous consequences. This time, the UN stood firm seeing this as the only way to fulfill its protection mandate. The fact that this mandate included an explicit reference to R2P is telling.

These are just two examples of how R2P is helping to change things on the ground for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. As events in Syria remind us daily, there is still a very long way to go. R2P’s first decade was primarily about securing normative progress and establishing the principle as an international norm. With that now achieved, our efforts in its second decade should focused squarely on the challenge on making R2P a lived reality for all.

This piece is one of several reflections within an ongoing series produced by OpenCanada.org and the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. The series commemorates the adoption of R2P at the 2005 UN World Summit and is part of the centre’s ‘R2P at Crossroads: Ten Years since the 2005 World Summit’ advocacy campaign.  

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