Five years after its acceptance by the 2005 World Summit, it is time to consider the contribution that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has made and could make to the prevention of mass atrocities.
The consensus among the Member States of the United Nations, as reflected in the General Assembly debate in the summer of 2009 is broad but not necessarily deep. While there is considerable general support for R2P along the three pillars suggested by the UN Secretary-General (responsibility of states to protect their own populations, assistance and capacity building and timely responses), fundamental questions remain. For instance: what does R2P add to the already existing obligations of states and to the substantial arsenal of instruments at the possession of the international community to prevent and respond to mass atrocities? Does R2P entail a risk of opening the door to external intervention? And how can R2P be operationalised and implemented in concrete circumstances?
Knowledge of the impact of the principle is limited. Recent practice shows both instances of where the international community succeeded (Kenya) and failed (Darfur) to prevent mass atrocities, but in neither of these cases it is obvious that success or failure could be attributed directly to the use, or lack of use, of the concept of R2P.
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