A new report from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on implementation of the Responsibility to Protect has been released ahead of a high-level General Assembly debate on the rule of law, scheduled to take place in two weeks, towards the start of the new session. All told, the Secretary-General’s report doesn’t provide a major shift on the discourse on R2P, but has enough interesting points to be worth adding to the discussion.

The report devotes a lengthy portion of its text towards the beginning in stressing that the way the United Nations views the process in which implementation occurs. The three pillars of R2P are often seen as being clearly divided between prevention mechanisms and response mechanisms, along with being sequential in the order in which they are invoked, escalating from first to third. Instead, the Secretary-General stresses that the three pillars aren’t viewed by the UN as being activated one after another, but mutually reinforcing to an extent. Obviously Pillar Three’s response mechanism is seen as a last resort, should the first two fail to end the atrocities or incitement of atrocities as laid out by R2P, but the concept of response and prevention intertwine throughout all three.

The majority of debate surrounding implementation, and general international squirming, has come from the third pillar’s seeming endorsement of the use of force to topple regimes. Following the use of force as sanctioned by the UN Security Council in Libya and the ongoing crisis in Syria, there’s been concern for the prospects of the survival of the doctrine, should it come to be viewed solely as a device for regime change of unfavorable governments by the militarily strong. Fears of that nature were reinforced by discussion on whether Libya indicated a new view of sovereignty or, as later described by US UN Ambassador Susan Rice, “a data point, not a trend”.

This latest report seems to fall into the latter camp with regards to implementation, appearing to follow the standards decided upon by the initial Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The World Summit Outcome of 2005, which reinforced the ideas in that report and was the first UN endorsement of R2P, is cited several times by the Secretary-General. No deviation from those point can be seen in this report, insofar as using the United Nations as a tool for regime change or supplanting states:

As has been underscored from the outset, the goal is to help States to succeed in meeting their protection responsibilities. It is not the role of the United Nations to replace the State in meeting those responsibilities…

Putting an end to the four specified crimes and violations in a particular situation should be the beginning of a period of social renewal and institutional capacity-building aimed at making future violence less likely.

What this clarification of the UN’s role in Pillar Three does not do, however, is lay out specific ways that force should be implemented to achieve these goals. While this is not exactly the mandate of the Secretariat, it does highlight the need for strategic and tactical planning when discussing military options at the United Nations. Attempting to discuss the use of force in a vacuum, outside of any attempt to place it in the context of actual military operations, is sure to only further weaken the discourse.

This discussion of Pillar Three leads indirectly to the most interesting portion of the report, which is fairly buried. Section V, titled “Responsibility While Protecting”, basically endorses an eponymous revision of R2P put forward by Brazil’s President Dilma Rouseff last fall. In doing proposing the “Responsibility While Protecting” (RwP), Rouseff sought to bridge the differences in R2P’s proponents and detractors, and provide a rethinking that would be more palatable to those in the Global South who remain concerned about over-expansion of the use of force against their own governments for reasons ranking below the agreed upon criteria in R2P.

Indeed, the report heaps praise upon the principles outlined in RwP and cites them heavily:

“Responsibility while protecting” calls for vigilance and sober judgement in identifying where threats of magnitude exist and are growing. Evidence of incitement, dehumanizing rhetoric and the mobilization of portions of the population against others is of particular concern, as these may be indications of intent to commit atrocities.

“Responsibility while protecting” requires early identification, engagement, and preventive action, as described in my 2010 report (A/64/864). Waiting for situations to deteriorate and for the pattern of atrocities to escalate before acting is irresponsible and counterproductive.

The essence of “responsibility while protecting” is doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time and for the right reasons. Timely and decisive action puts a premium on assessment, on understanding what is happening, why it is happening, and how the international community can help keep a difficult situation from becoming worse. An early and flexible response strategy requires dynamic assessments, focusing on trends and developments, not just the latest headlines.


All of these ideas are attractive not only to those who support the concept of R2P without reservation, but to those who have questioned the principle in the past. What is less clear is how the Western powers will accept Brazil’s, and now the Secretary-General’s, push for these principles, considering their previous unwillingness. It will be interesting to see if the pushback that NATO received following its operations in Libya, from Brazil among others, will be mirrored in obstinacy regarding calls for a shift to the RwP framework. Thomas Wright, attending a workshop hosted by Brazil on the revision, believed such pushback was to be expected.


As a framework for discussion at the upcoming session, five main lessons in implementation were highlighted by Ban, paraphrased here:

  1. Each case is different. No two instances where R2P may be applied are exactly identical.
  2. Such distinctions may lead to charges of double-standards, and so the principles of R2P should be applied evenly as possible by all actors.
  3. More nuance is required in understanding the interaction of the three pillars, as noted in the earlier discussion.
  4. An effective and integrated strategy is likely to involve elements of both prevention and response, again as noted.
  5. Strengthening relationships between the UN and its partners is necessary for proper implementation of the R2P doctrine.

Overall, nothing groundbreaking or likely to fundamentally shift the debate over the appropriateness and applicability of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is contained in those points, at least as far as the General Assembly is concerned. Instead, they serve as a clarification effort by the Secretary-General on just how the UN views the doctrine writ large and specifically how the organization will act to implement its pillars. As the United Nations operates both as a vessel for the will of the Member States in some regards and an actor in its own regard in others, the clarification is both necessary and welcome.

It is worth bearing in mind that this is only a report, not a true operating strategy for the United Nations. It does provide guidelines on how the Secretary-General can and will use his “Good Offices”, in conjunction with the powers and offices of the Secretariat under his remit, in pursuit of Pillars 1 and 2. In that vein, it also stresses the importance of the General Assembly and other organs and UN bodies in providing the necessary frameworks for discussing and actually carrying out R2P, such as the increasing use of Commissions of Inquiry and other fact-finding missions to supplement the first two pillars.

What the Report unfortunately glosses over is that the majority of the efforts and tools that Secretary-General Ban lists fall under the purview of the Security Council. Chapters VI, VII, and VIII, all specifically cited as ways to bring R2P to bear, all are listed in the Charter’s section on the Security Council. No other sections of the Charter are specifically given to justify any other method of implementation – save the ability of the General Assembly or Secretary-General to recommend situations to be discussed by the Security Council.

The power of the Security Council remains firmly in the hands of the states that compose it, many of whom aren’t exactly eager to listen to the Sec-Gen on matters involving the use of force, specifically their forces. Even Chapter VIII, which allows the Security Council to deputize regional organizations in carrying out its mandates via force, is subject to the political will of the Council. As with so much at the United Nations, no matter how the Secretary-General may plan, much is dependent on the whims and interests of the Great Powers that sit on the Security Council.