The United Nations and the challenges of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Pic: UN Photo/Isaac Billy 

The problem of how to respond appropriately to gross and systematic violations of human right that happen within the territory of a sovereign country has been subject to much international debate. On one side, there is the appeal to our shared humanity and the urgency to help those who are suffering no matter where in the world. On the other side, there is the international principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of sovereign countries. Arguing that human rights are a greater principle than sovereignty, the United Nations has promoted many humanitarian interventions that use force as a means to achieve its goals, understanding that consent is not necessarily needed, especially when the government of a country is the one attacking its own population and causing the humanitarian crisis.

In 1992, in Somalia, UN forces suffered heavy human losses and found enormous resistance in the provision of humanitarian aid. Fearing a recurrence of this, the international community took three months to act in Rwanda, in 1994. In the meantime, one million Tutsis were brutally exterminated. The failure in one African country sealed the fate of another, resulting in the first case of genocide since the Holocaust.

It became evident that a new consensus on responses to massive human rights violations was needed to help the international community to respond more efficiently and avoid new genocides. In 2001, the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine was created as a solution to the problem of how to respond to gross and systematic violations of human rights that happen within sovereign states. It sets out clear criteria for humanitarian interventions and an answer to the sovereignty dilemma. It argues that, to have their right of sovereignty respected, states must be able to provide security to their people. When they fail to do so, the international community is not only legally authorised to intervene in their internal affairs, but it also has the responsibility to do so in order to prevent and protect people from violence. This new concept delegitimised the discourse of leaders who appeal to the principle of sovereignty to protect themselves from any external interference while committing crimes against their own population.

However, in spite of being endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council, the R2P principles that endorse humanitarian interventions remain controversial and the doctrine is as acclaimed as it is criticised.

One of the main criticisms is that states can invoke R2P to justify any military intervention, or that they would only do so based in their national interests. In 2011, the R2P-based intervention in Libya was accused of being a pretext to carry out regime-change. This has yielded global concerns that the R2P principles were used as a political excuse to intervene in the country’s affairs. As a result, Russia and China have later vetoed several attempts of humanitarian intervention in Syria.

It is also very hard to assess the efficiency of an intervention. Even when it is considered successful, there will not be any evidence to show what would have happened without the intervention. And while the benefits of the intervention might not be visible, the costs are, and any destruction caused by it will raise questions about its legitimacy and success in preventing harm.

But, ultimately, the main weakness of the R2P doctrine is that it is not legally binding, which makes it more of an aspiration rather than a real international norm. The United Nations relies completely on its member states to provide military force for any intervention that wishes to undertake, and has therefore to deal with the fact that, in most cases, they will put their national political interests above human rights urgencies, resulting in arbitrary decisions whenever a crisis requires the application of the R2P principles.

All these difficulties show that the R2P doctrine is far from being the solution to the problems the UN faces when trying to tackle gross human rights violations. Urgent reforms are needed in the areas of international peacekeeping, Security Council and General Assembly Reforms. But how could the UN be changed to effectively deal with all of its challenges?

In our event: “UN: Peacemaker or toothless tiger? Are you interested in how to reform the United Nations and bring about a more peaceful world?”, Vijay Mehta, Author and Chair of Uniting for Peace, will explore, analyse and put forward proposals for how the UN can become a relevant organisation fit enough to tackle the huge threats and challenges of 21st Century. Come and hear him and Dr. Claire Duncanson, Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the University of Edinburgh explore how the UN can overcome these challenges.

The event is on Thursday 4 October, 6.30 – 8.30pm, at 50 George Sq Room G.06, Edinburgh EH8 9LH. Free. All welcome. Book via

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Kofi Annan: the hopeful peacemaker

Picture: (Copyright: cc by 2.0) Eric Roset/Africa Progress Panel 

The first United Nations Secretary-General from sub-Saharan Africa and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Kofi Annan, who passed away this month at the age of 80, will be mainly remembered for his successful career as an international diplomat, a humanist, and a peace-builder. But, in many ways, his legacy is also defined by his failures and the role they had in shaping his tireless efforts towards a world that would put human rights above politics.

He was Undersecretary-General in charge of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations when the genocide in Rwanda happened in 1994, with the slaughter of approximately 800,000 people. Annan accepted his share of responsibility and expressed deep regret and remorse that the United Nations failed to prevent and to take necessary action to stop this shocking humanitarian catastrophe, although acknowledging that the peace forces were neither mandated nor equipped for the required action at the time. In a speech marking the 10th anniversary of the genocide, he recognized that if the UN, governments and the international media had paid more attention to the signs of disaster unfolding, and taken timely action, the massacres could have been averted. “The international community is guilty of sins of omission. I myself, as head of the UN’s peacekeeping department at the time, pressed dozens of countries for troops. I believed at that time that I was doing my best. But I realized after the genocide that there was more than I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support.”[1]

In 1995, just a year after Rwanda, the UN system failed again at responding adequately to avoid and stop the genocide in Bosnia. Around 8,000 Bosnians Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serb Forces in the Srebrenica massacre, the worst on European soil since the Second World War.

These painful failures have influenced much of his thinking and many of his later actions during his role as UN’s Secretary General, from 1997 to 2006. Kofi Annan joined the many voices that questioned the role of the international community in protecting civilian populations and advocated for the right to intervene when necessary. For the world to act collectively against genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, it would require a review of the traditional principle of sovereignty and noninterference in national matters. In Annan’s report “We the peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century”, in 2000, he laid out the question: “I accept that the principles of sovereignty and noninterference provide vital protection for small and weak states. But if humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable violation of sovereignty, how should we react to situations such as those we have witnessed in Rwanda or Srebrenica blatant and systematic violations of human rights that offend all the precepts on which our common condition of human beings?” [2]

The solution came with the new understanding of state sovereignty as a conditional right that cannot overlap individual rights and with the development of an international norm that allows intervention to protect civilians against gross and systematic violations of human rights perpetrated in or by a sovereign State. In 2006, following a World Summit, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the Resolution 1674, affirming the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and committing the Security Council to action to protect civilians in armed conflicts. This became known as the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine or R2P.

Along with the Millennium Development Goals which — for the first time — set global targets on issues such as poverty and child mortality, the introduction of the R2P doctrine in the international human rights framework was one of the Secretary-General’s greatest achievements. There are, unfortunately, many difficulties in implementing it and guaranteeing that its principles of protection of human rights are applied consistently. The United Nations has no military power of its own and needs to rely on its member states to deploy any peacekeeping forces into action. In 2012, Kofi Annan was appointed as a UN envoy to Syria, but resigned six months later, claiming there was an insufficient attempt by the international community to end the conflict. “At a time when we need, when the Syrian people desperately need, action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council”, he said. [3]

The “finger-pointing and name-calling” are emblematic of how the UN Security Council usually deals with international conflicts. Countries put their own national political interests above the human rights, resulting in arbitrary decisions whenever a crisis requires the application of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. In other words, what determines action, in each case, is the political will of the member states rather than the humanitarian urgency.

Despite the difficulties of peacemaking, Kofi Annan remained hopeful and never let reality drain away his idealism. In an interview this April, he told the BBC “I am a stubborn optimist, I was born an optimist and will remain an optimist.” [4]During his difficult and challenging career, he managed to deeply internalize the moral rhetoric of the United Nations. As Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian author who wrote a review of Annan’s autobiography, said:“When he accepted the Nobel Prize awarded jointly to him and the UN in 2001, he seemed to many the most complete incarnation of its ideals of any secretary-general who ever lived.” [5]

May Kofi Annan rest in peace. And may we keep the humanitarian values that guided his efforts as a peacemaker alive.

[1]ANNAN, Kofi. Secretary-General’s remarks at “Memorial Conference on the Rwanda Genocide”, organized by the governments of Canada and Rwanda.UN, New York, 2004. At:

[2]ANNAN, Kofi. We the People, the United Nations of the 21st Century.UN, New York, 2000.At:

[3]ANNAN, Kofi. Opening remarks by Kofi Annan, Joint Special Envoy for Syria. UN, Geneva, 2012. At:

[4]ANNAN, Kofi. BBC’s HARDtalk programme. BBC, April 2018. At:

[5]IGNATIEFF, Michael. The Confessions of Kofi Annan. The New York Review of Books, Dec 2012. At:


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The Dunblane Lesson: Scotland’s Response to a School Mass Shooting

There have already been nine shootings that resulted in injury or death at US schools in 2018, and the year has just begun. The shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, left 14 students and 3 teachers dead, and injured more than a dozen others. It was the worst school shooting since the 2012 tragic killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 adults. There have been many calls for more strict laws on gun sales and ownership in the aftermath of these tragedies. But gun rights campaigners regularly succeed in stifling those calls. In fact, the political will aims at the moment to increase, rather than decrease, the number of firearms in schools, suggesting that arming teachers and school staff could be the solution. It is easy to see why this is a recipe for disaster, as well as an indicator that America’s gun violence epidemic is far from ending.

For Scotland, one school shooting massacre was enough. In March 1996, 16 young children (all aged 5 and 6) and their teacher were murdered in a Primary School in Dunblane, Stirlingshire. The 43-year-old perpetrator was the legal owner of the rapid-fire handguns used to inflict gunshot wounds in a total of 32 people. It all happened over a 3-4-minute period, after which he killed himself. Shock and grief soon turned to a great public debate on gun legislation and petitions calling for a total ban on the private ownership of handguns in the United Kingdom. The media played a vital part in the campaign, not only informing the public but also articulating the views of the majority of the country. The Snowdrop Campaign, founded by friends of the bereaved families, was signed by 750,000 people within ten weeks. By the time it was presented to parliament, the number of signatures was above one million. 

Photo credit: March for our lives by Mobilus in mobili CC BY-SA 2.0

In response to all the public commotion and the extensive campaign that followed the Dunblane tragedy, the Conservative government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which banned cartridge ammunition handguns with the exception  of .22 cartridge handguns. In the same year, when Labour was elected, the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997 was introduced, implementing a complete ban. All handguns (including the .22 cartridge ones) were to be surrendered by the end of February 1998. But the campaigners were still concerned that a permanent gun control organisation was needed not only to oppose any moves to reverse the new legislation but also to campaign for the tightening of loopholes in existing laws. A group made up of academics, lawyers and parents of victims formed the Gun Control Network, which is still active today, promoting research and informing the public.

Naturally, the Gun Lobby resisted these restrictions and their favourite argument still persists: “It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people.” But why, then, should we allow people (who can possibly kill other people) to own guns that are capable of killing so many in a few minutes? A major – and important – distinction between different perspectives of firearm regulation around the world is whether civilian gun ownership is considered a right or a privilege. If it is a right, it can only be taken away from a gun owner after it is proven that he poses a threat to people- and it might be too late by then. But if it is a privilege, the owner needs to justify the need of a weapon and will be subjected to social and psychological evaluations.

Britain’s current laws are considered among the most restrictive in the world. Not surprisingly, fatal shootings are rare, and the record of deaths from firearms is very low – at below one per million people annually. Scotland has its own legal system and has strengthened the law further, requiring a licence for all air weapons. As a result, it has an even lower record of deaths from firearms. In fact, guns are a rare sight in this country. Only 2 percent of police officers carry guns. And, as a result of the stricter laws and the ban, it is now virtually impossible for someone to legally buy a gun that could be concealed in his pocket and carried unnoticed into a school. Scotland took the actions to avoid something like Dunblane from ever happening again. And, 22 years later, it hasn’t. There is certainly a lesson in all of this that the United States could contemplate.


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