The Responsibility to Protect

Underlying the concept of the responsibility to protect (or R2P) is the recognition that “sovereignty implies responsibility.” This is understood to imply that a primary obligation of states is to protect their respective populations from serious human rights violations. When the state is unwilling or unable to protect its people, so goes the argument, it then becomes the responsibility of the international community to act in its place. It is then that the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect according to international law.

While the “sovereignty as trusteeship” argument explored in this research project draws on similar normative grounds as the “responsibility to protect” concept, it is distinct in a number of ways. First, while R2P concept is grounded in the primary responsibility of the state of citizenship toward its own citizens, and stipulates an indirect responsibility of others to step in, the trusteeship concept seeks to establish a direct obligation of the state toward non-citizens. While the R2P concept does not explain why other states have a responsibility to intervene when one sovereign fails to protect its citizens, the trusteeship argument does offer such an explanation. (I thank Michal Saliternik for elucidating this aspect).

Second, while R2P obligations involve intervention in the foreign state and substituting its authority, the trusteeship obligation obliges the state to open up its own decision-making processes to accommodate the interests of others. Third, while R2P is focused on situations of crises and the need to avert severe human rights violations, the trusteeship obligation focuses on routine decision-making processes that encompass all aspects of public (and private) regulation that impact human welfare.

Resources on the Responsibility to Protect and related scholarship:


A digest of sources on the responsibility to protect

Prepared for the GlobalTrust project by Paulina Polowniak-Rubin, LL.M.

Resources-on-Responsibility-to-Protect June 2013 (Word file, 26.0 MB)