The Rise and Fall of the Responsibility to Protect
Sovereignty is sacred. But when lives are in danger, does that principle still apply?
At the end of World War II, countries sought ways to ensure the world never again devolved into such horrific conflict. Leaders created the United Nations, an international forum to defuse conflicts before they broke out into full-scale war and to ensure that, should aggression occur, it would be stopped in its tracks. Underpinning this new world order was a respect for sovereignty—the principle that no country can interfere in the domestic affairs of another.
To preserve peace and defend human rights, the United Nations created multinational peacekeeping forces, ideally to work in coordination with local governments. But how would these peacekeepers respond if a local government was the one responsible for committing violence against its own people? Could preventing a mass atrocity justify violating a country’s sovereignty?
For decades, the United Nations maintained that sovereignty must be respected. But after a series of conflicts in the 1990s, including the Rwandan genocide and wars in the former Yugoslavia, scholars and diplomats reevaluated this thinking. This led in 2005 to UN members endorsing what became known as the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, which states that countries have a fundamental sovereign responsibility to protect their citizens. If they fail to do so, that responsibility falls to the United Nations system, which may take steps to protect those vulnerable people, violating the sovereignty of the relevant country if needed. In other words, countries acting under UN auspices can use all means necessary—including military intervention—to prevent large-scale loss of life.
The R2P doctrine was put to the test in 2011 amid Libya’s civil war. But the destabilizing effects of that humanitarian intervention and its evolution into a regime-change operation have once again led world leaders to debate the delicate—and divisive—balancing act between respecting sovereignty and protecting human rights. This timeline traces the evolution of humanitarian intervention to show how R2P came into existence and looks to its uncertain future after its controversial implementation in Libya.