Prevention of genocide - Responsibility to Protect

A brief introduction to genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect

The major massacres that marred the end of the 20th century (in Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, for example) clearly demonstrated both the inability of some nations to meet their most basic responsibilities and the collective failure of various international institutions, foremost among them the United Nations.  

The realisation of this state of affairs revitalised the debate about the existence of a "rightof humanitarian intervention", e.g. in connection with NATO and Kosovo. Bearing in mind the controversial nature of this notion, the UN Secretary-General at the time, Mr Kofi Annan, asked the UN member states to consider whether it was acceptable (and if so under what circumstances) for nations to apply coercive measures short of war, especially measures of a military nature, against another country in an attempt to protect endangered groups among their population. 

The resulting thinking gave rise to the new concept of the 'responsibility to protect' (sometimes referred to as 'RtoP' or 'R2P'), which was first mentioned by the UN in its 2005 World Summit Outcome.

Nations have a responsibility to protect their populations against:

  • Genocide;
  • war crimes;
  • crimes against humanity;
  • ethnic cleansing.

This concept rests on three pillars:

  • The first pillar spotlights every nation's obligation to protect its population against such acts.
  • The second pillar spotlights the international community's obligation to help nations meet the obligation arising under the first pillar.
  • The third pillar spotlights the international community's responsibility to take collective action in good time whenever a nation manifestly fails to meet its obligation to provide protection.

This presupposes that the international community can only intervene when the nation state in question is either unable or unwilling to meet its obligation to protect its population. The 'responsibility to protect' is based on a new way of looking at the principle of national sovereignty, interpreting it as not merely offering prerogatives to nations, e.g. being able to invoke the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs, but also as entailing responsibilities.

International instruments

Consequently, at UN level the concept of the 'responsibility to protect' was defined in Articles 138 and 139 of the World Summit Outcome which was adopted in 2005 by 150 out of 191 member states. And yet the concept was only developed in the so-called 'Evans-Sahnoun report' published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon then appointed Mr Edward Luck as his Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect and assigned him to draft a report on the implementation of this concept. That report was duly submitted in January 2009 and discussed at the General Assembly in June 2009, being supposed to provide a basis for the definition and implementation of specific actions in this domain.

Action by Belgium and the European Union

Right from the start, Belgium asserted its support for the concept of the 'responsibility to protect' to save populations from the worst human rights violations. Our country estimates that the concept is firmly anchored in the well-established principles of international law, such as the obligation to warn against and suppress such crimes. Belgium attaches great significance to the three pillars underlying the concept, which are all equally important. This view is shared by the European Union, which supports developments within the UN in this connection. The EU and its Member States are currently focusing on the concept's implementation.

 UN 2005 World Summit Outcome (PDF, 216.21 KB)

 Report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on "The Responsibility to Protec" (PDF, 434.05 KB)

Speech given by His Excellency Ambassador Jan Grauls, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, to the 63rd session of the General Assembly in New York on 23 July 2009: "Implementation of the Responsibility to Protect"