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Responsibility to protect has three pillars


The responsibility to protect (R2P) is a complex concept. Protecting a population from atrocity crimes—defined as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and ethnic cleansing—is no easy task, and the results are multi-faceted.

One must consider the implications to politics, economics, human rights, and overall well-being. Defining when and how a country should take action to protect populations within and beyond its borders is a tricky job.

The controversy of violating the state sovereignty must be carefully balanced with the rights of individual citizens.

To help sort through this messy business, in 2009 then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, wrote of three “pillars” of R2P essential to its successful implementation. These pillars, when concurrently implemented, define the action possible and necessary under R2P.

The first pillar of R2P states that the primary responsibility of any state (country) is to protect its own populations from atrocity crimes, using what are called upstream preventive measures.

These measures are designed to stop atrocities before they occur.

They include economic movements such as reducing poverty and deprivation, building a strong and corruption-free government, promoting human rights, specifically to protect minorities, improving citizen security by strengthening the rule of law, and promoting social inclusion, diversity, and tolerance.

The second pillar builds upon the first, stating that the international community has the responsibility to encourage individual countries to protect their own populations.

This includes providing financial and humanitarian assistance when asked, doing a sort of “peer review” of each other's R2P efficacy, and reporting incidents of atrocity crimes to the UN.

Under the third and final pillar of R2P, the international community has an additional responsibility to take timely and decisive action to protect populations within a state when that state has failed to do so.

The first action taken under this pillar should be peaceful, using economic, political, or diplomatic influence, humanitarian aid, or peacekeeping operations to resolve the situation.

If these actions fail to protect those suffering, under the advisement of the UN Security Council, collective military action can be taken by the international community.

This pillar system is very useful in defining the scope and limits of R2P, but it also highlights some of the controversy surrounding R2P.

The third pillar, in particular, causes distress among countries fearing their right to sovereignty and independence may be violated.

Perhaps a state wanting power over another could manipulate the definition of R2P and take military action under Pillar III; if they justify their actions as protecting a population, who has the right or responsibility to question them?

R2P, when used as intended, can be very effective in protecting innocent populations from the worst atrocities imaginable. The three pillars define what the responsibility of each country, as an individual state and as a part of a global community.

However, it opens many questions to the ethics of external involvement in internal affairs. Where is the limit, and who has the right to decide this?

I'll be looking at the topic of humanitarian intervention in my next article.

For more information on R2P and the CCR2P, visit or contact me at

Editor's note: Mira Donaldson is an intern for the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (CCR2P) and recently has taken on her new position of Youth Ambassador.

She is the daughter of local residents Kelly and Guy Donaldson.

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