Vol 5 No 2

Dear Reader,

As we reflect on a year scarred by an unprecedented global health emergency and its rippling worldwide effects – and as we cautiously step foot into a new one – the Responsibility to Protect Student Journal offers its insights into the ongoing human rights violations of our time. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic early on raised the question of whether a global health emergency would change how the international community sees and acts on its global responsibilities, ongoing human rights violations have kept a steady pace, whilst others have emerged in a world where global inequalities have largely been reinforced. 

In 2005, States universally agreed that they have a responsibility to protect (R2P) populations from gross human rights violations: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. What made R2P promising was the reconceptualisation of sovereignty as responsibility (Thakur, 2016, p. 418). To use Piiperinen’s words (2013, p. 380), R2P is not just about “limited functions of short-term rescue and protection of civilians from immediate physical harm”, it sets an agenda for “more long-term and ambitious efforts aimed at building responsible sovereigns and transforming societies”. For some scholars, R2P is, at its core, about humanitarian sovereignty-building: “an intervention or a set of interventions aimed at strengthening or creating the popular and positive sovereignty of a target state, which first and foremost entails the long-term protection of its population by means of transforming its institutions and structures” (Piiparinen, 2013, p. 385). Thus, R2P differs from the short-term goals of humanitarian intervention as it pursues a more ambitious goal: creating responsible sovereigns.

Fifteen years after the adoption of the World Document Outcome that codified R2P, how successful has this concept been in creating responsible sovereigns? How successful has its implementation been? What can we identify as the markers of R2P success? In the opening of this issue, Professor Gareth Evans, co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which conceptualised R2P, offers his thoughts on the evolution of R2P since 2005 – its successes and shortfalls – in a constantly evolving global environment. 

In the last years, practitioners and scholars have been eager to identify R2P success stories, but defining success in R2P operations, both supportive and coercive, is a challenging task. First, it is difficult to identify what makes a particular operation an “R2P operation”, given how R2P has become an umbrella term for measures ranging from prevention of mass atrocities by prohibiting hate speech and capacity building which aims to create “effective, legitimate and inclusive governments” (see the UNSG’s report on Pillar II, 2014, para. 39), to military intervention. Second, there are no generally acknowledged criteria for “R2P success”. Does success mean a decrease in levels of violence, the halt of a crisis, or democratic post-war governance? Does it mean all of the above? Could and should it mean more?

As the concept of R2P continues to develop, evaluations of successful application will need to consider new and diverse factors. Success, ultimately, is an iterative process, just as responsibility, as Patrick Butchard argues, “is a continuum, and it does not cease to exist with failure” (Butchard, 2020, p. 269). Butchard, as Blake Lawrinson (2021) outlines in a thorough review of his latest book in this issue, builds a case for how, in the event of UN Security Council deadlock and paralysis, R2P implementation may still succeed.

After all, perhaps the fact that R2P success is not strictly defined obliges scholars and practitioners to refrain from “closing the books” and ascribing “success” to a particular episode. Rather, it invites for a continuous discussion of what could have been done differently and better – a more thorough consideration of immaterial progress or regress, and an ongoing learning process that allows for new voices to join the conversation and ask critical questions. Almost one year after the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one important question remains: has R2P, through its protection discourse and reconceptualisation of sovereignty as responsibility, made States more responsible? 

For this special issue on responses to human rights violations in a changing global environment, we invited submissions on gross human rights violations pre-, during, and post-COVID-19. Our goal in looking at human rights violations in the context of the ongoing global health emergency is to highlight the numerous ways in which the two are entwined. Given that global inequalities have, with little exception, been moved into the spotlight, the notion of collective global responsibility has become increasingly revealing, especially in light of evidence that states’ and individuals’ access to resources directly impacts their ability to cope with and survive the crisis. Limited personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies have raised questions around moral responsibility (The Economist, 2020), as vulnerable populations are unable to access adequate medical equipment, despite equal rights to health and medical treatment. Concerns have been raised about how – or if – the COVID-19 vaccines will be shared equitably, despite the moral and global responsibility this represents (HRW, 2020). Today, as COVID-19 vaccination programmes across the world accelerate, estimates suggest that citizens of low-income countries may have years to wait before they receive the vaccine (Mullard, 2020), whilst other states have reserved vaccine doses that grossly surpass their needs to inoculate their population (Bloomberg, 2021). As such, the pandemic has highlighted the persistence of global inequalities and structural violence, as well as its impact on our collective capability to effectively respond to health emergencies. This should ring warning bells in the event that the destructive potential of a disease like COVID-19 might in the future be weaponized, as Aparajitha Narayanan (2021) warns in this issue. 

The current crisis also shines a light on the persistence of human rights violations which, in some cases, have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Human Rights Watch (2021) has brought attention to the potential increase of government abuse and atrocities whilst the international community remains focused on fighting COVID-19. In this issue, Inés Fernández Gallego (2021) addresses China’s treatment of its Uighur minority and builds a case for why it should be treated as an act of genocide. Meanwhile, Trial International (2020) has reported that human rights violations have become more difficult than ever to report as a consequence of the pandemic. This challenge to the state of international justice amid the pandemic is further elaborated by Stephanie Miller (2021) in this issue, a topic of grave concern given that governments have used the pandemic to further discriminatory agendas. In May 2020, Myanmar submitted its first report to the International Court of Justice on what has been done to protect its Rohingya population from genocide, all while using the pandemic to increase restrictions against its minority. In Europe, the coronavirus crisis has increased destitution and stigmatisation of the Roma people, the continent’s largest minority (Walker, 2020). Vulnerable populations have also been exploited, as Amnesty International (2020) reports a spike in migrant women victims of domestic abuse. The increase in populations worldwide confined to their homes is due to have long-lasting and irreversible impacts.

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, of which its long-term effects and consequences are yet to be seen, this issue aims to shed light on the realities and complexities of emerging and evolving human rights violations in this unique and unprecedented global context. For this, we would like to thank all our contributors as well as our peer reviewer team which has upheld its task of providing constructive and high-quality analysis on these issues with the utmost diligence. This issue also marks the end of R2P Journal’s bi-annual issues, a tradition held since the first volume’s inaugural issue in 2015. Whilst R2P issues will no longer feature on our agenda, we have new and exciting projects in the works. We look forward to sharing these with you as well as welcoming you to our new platform which aims, whilst staying true to the Journal’s mission and the importance of responses to gross human rights violations as a topic of discussion, to broaden its scope to allow for a wider debate on the multi-faceted critical issues which continue to shape our world. 

The R2P Student Journal Editorial Team

Georgiana Epure, Kristin Smette Gulbrandsen, Emma Bapt, Charlotte Abbott and Emily Faux


Amnesty International (2020) UK: Domestic abuse services call for urgent support for migrant victims blocked from safety, healthcare and refuges. Amnesty International, 30 March. Available from: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/uk-domestic-abuse-services-call-urgent-support-migrant-victims-blocked-safety (Accessed 25 January 2021).

Bloomberg (2021) More Than 65.6 Million Shots Given: Covid-19 Tracker. Bloomberg, 25 January. Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/ (Accessed 25 January 2021).

Butchard, P (2020), The Responsibility to Protect and the Failures of the United Nations Security Council’. London: Hart Publishing. 

Human Rights Watch (2020) “Whoever Finds the Vaccine Must Share It”. Human Rights Watch, 29 October. Available from: https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/29/whoever-finds-vaccine-must-share-it/strengthening-human-rights-and-transparency (Accessed 21 January 2021).

Human Rights Watch (2021) World Report 2021: Events of 2020. Human Rights Watch. Available from: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2021/01/2021_hrw_world_report.pdf.

Mullard, A. (2020) How COVID vaccines are being divvied up around the world. Nature, 30 November. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03370-6 (Accessed 25 January 2021).

Piiparinen, T. (2013) Responsibility to Protect: The Coming of Age of Sovereignty Building. Civil Wars, 15(3), pp. 380-405.

Thakur, R (2016) The Responsibility to protect at 15. International Affairs, 92(2), pp. 415-434.

The Economist (2020) Why countries can’t meet the demand for gear against covid-19. The Economist, 19 April. Available from: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/04/19/why-countries-cant-meet-the-demand-for-gear-against-covid-19 (Accessed 25 January 2021).

TRIAL International (2020) Justice in the time of coronavirus. How a global pandemic affects victims of the gravest crimes. TRIAL International. Available from: https://trialinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Justice-in-the-time-of-coronavirus_EN_final.pdf?fbclid=IwAR32xubI5SEvvMCdTUsxehtynQyesRjcoSECgVjyV–eNSxOlrT9hN2p1Yc.

United Nations (2014) Fulfilling our collective responsibility: International assistance and the responsibility to protect. Report of the Secretary-General. UN Doc. A/68/947–S/2014/449. Available from: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/775455

Walker, S. (2020) Europe’s marginalised Roma people hit hard by coronavirus. The Guardian, 11 May. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/11/europes-marginalised-roma-people-hit-hard-by-coronavirus (Accessed 25 January 2021).

This issue was originally published under our previous title, the Responsibility to Protect Student Journal.