The Final Frontier: R2P and Implementation

Dr Jess Gifkins, University of Manchester, UK

Dr Jess Gifkins has worked at the University of Manchester since 2017, having previously worked at universities in the UK and in Australia. Her research is on global governance in relation to questions of peace and security. She studies decision-making practices within the United Nations Security Council, and have published research on the international response to crises in Darfur, Libya and Syria. She is also interested in debates on the responsibility to protect (R2P). 

R2P has catalysed debate and become remarkably embedded as a feature of International Relations in less than two decades. The early stages of ‘what R2P is’ from the ICISS report in 2001 through to the agreement by all states that they accept their responsibility to protect in 2005 appears linear in hindsight, although it was highly contested at the time (Bellamy 2009; Evans 2008). R2P was then reframed as three pillars by Ban Ki-Moon, which has left a lasting impact on the way R2P is understood. Once there was broad acceptance on ‘what R2P is’, debates followed over what level of support it enjoys from states (for opposing perspectives on this see Gifkins 2016; Hehir 2016). Alongside this there has been extensive debate around whether R2P is a norm, and what type of norm it is. It has been described as a “complex norm” by Jennifer Welsh (2013: 384), by Alex Bellamy as a “collection of norms” (2015: 62), and more recently by Alex Bellamy and Edward Luck as “an established international norm” (2018: 39). Beyond these foundational debates, scholarship on R2P has now shifted to the most critical issue: implementation.

The deceptively simple goal of R2P – preventing mass atrocity crimes – belies huge complexity around domestic governance, deescalating political disputes, inclusion of diverse groups, and best practices on the roles of local, national, regional, and international bodies. Luckily there is a great new book out by Alex Bellamy and Edward Luck which, ambitiously, addresses all of these challenges (2018). The book is titled ‘The Responsibility to Protect: From Promise to Practice’ and it is essential reading for anyone interested in the implementation of R2P.

I will focus on some of the key contributions of this book here. Between the two of them, Bellamy and Luck span more than a quarter of a century of research, advocacy, and diplomacy on R2P, Bellamy as Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre on R2P and consultant to the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and R2P, and Luck as the UN’s first Special Advisor on R2P and architect of the three-pillar approach. The book begins with the kind of history of R2P which can only be told from some distance. Retelling the origin story of R2P the authors highlight how the mandate of the original ICISS report swayed debates towards questions of humanitarian intervention, and that this has had a lasting, and detrimental, impact on focussing debates towards the use of force and away from atrocity prevention.

Drawing from this, the authors stress the importance of prevention, which shifts the central focus of R2P away from the United Nations and towards the practices of states and non-state actors. As Bellamy and Luck explain, “the cornerstone of prevention is the building of an inclusive, non-discriminatory form of politics capable of managing diversity constructively” (2018: 121). Throughout the book they remind us that R2P, under pillar one, applies to all states all the time, and that effective governments prevent violent conflict between groups, as a regular part of governance, whether they consider this R2P or not.

The book highlights a series of aspects of R2P where causal relationships – such as between early warning and action – are not as straightforward as it might have seemed, and they stress the need for further research in these areas. On early warning they suggest that the issue is often not simply of getting timely analysis to the right people, and that early warning is only likely to help if there is already some inclination to act. Similarly, the case study analysis in the book – spanning eight situations including historical conflicts such as Rwanda and Srebrenica and more recent conflicts in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire – suggests that Security Council involvement and peacekeeping are not necessarily factors that will prevent mass atrocity crimes. Bellamy and Luck find that the ‘successful cases’ they consider in the book all had atrocity prevention as a core priority from local and international actors. They draw from this that “making a conscious choice would appear to make a difference”, but that while this was a necessary factor it was not sufficient on its own (2018: 171). They stress the need for further research on tools that deescalate conflicts and recommend studies that compare large numbers of cases.

In reflecting on R2P as it currently stands, Bellamy and Luck conclude that “decision-making sovereignty remains the single greatest obstacle to R2P implementation today”, by which they mean the authority that states have to decide to take action (or not), as opposed the early R2P debates where it was assumed that territorial sovereignty presented the biggest obstacle (2018: 107). A more banal barrier – but one that remains consequential – is that UN peacekeeping operations rarely have enough force enablers such as helicopters, ground transportation, and intelligence capabilities (2018: 152). For example, lack of helicopters has been an ongoing challenge for the UNAMID peacekeeping operation in Darfur, a region the size of France. For those of you looking for ways to exercise your individual responsibility to protect you could lobby your governments to better equip peacekeeping operations. Without this equipment, even when they are deployed within a conflict, peacekeepers are unable to respond to incidents in a timely manner.

For those interested in the final frontier of R2P – implementation – Bellamy and Luck’s book is essential reading. For additional reading in this critical area there is a forthcoming edited book called ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’ edited by Cecilia Jacob and Martin Mennecke (2019). Keep an eye out for it when it is released in September.

The R2P Student journal – now in its third year – is an excellent model of student-led research and advocacy. If you are a student with an excellent essay of less than 6000 words do consider submitting to the journal. It’s a great way to reach a broader audience with your ideas (beyond the one or two academics who grade your essays). If you are a lecturer teaching courses connected to R2P do encourage your students to submit. It’s a great way to build skills in a new generation of researchers and to demystify the peer-review process.


Bellamy, Alex J. 2009. Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bellamy, Alex J. 2015. The Responsibility to Protect: A Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bellamy, Alex J. and Edward C. Luck. 2018. The Responsibility to Protect: From Promise to Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Evans, Gareth. 2008. The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Gifkins, Jess. 2016. ‘R2P in the UN Security Council: Darfur, Libya and Beyond’. Cooperation and Conflict 51(2): 148-165.

Hehir, Aidan. 2016. ‘Assessing the influence of the Responsibility to Protect on the UN Security Council during the Arab Spring’. Cooperation and Conflict 51(2): 166-183.

Jacob, Cecilia and Martin Mennecke, eds. 2019. Implementing the Responsibility to Protect. Global Politics and the Responsibility to Protect. Routledge.

Welsh, Jennifer. 2013. ‘Norm Contestation and the Responsibility to Protect’. Global Responsibility to Protect 5(4): 365-396.

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