What’s Next for R2P? Dr. Jennifer Welsh on the Responsibility to Protect

On Thursday 23 October, Dr. Jennifer Welsh, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), gave an insightful keynote lecture as part of The Hague Institute for Global Justice’s Responsibility to Protect Workshop (22-23 October).

In his opening remarks, Dr. Abiodun Williams, President of The Hague Institute and moderator of the session, noted the timely importance of R2P in light of the ongoing crises in the world, such as the Syrian civil war. Dr. Welsh began by outlining some of the key successes of R2P, as the principle agreed to by state leaders in 2005 approaches its 10th anniversary in 2015.

One of the main successes she highlighted was that in a relatively short period of time the debate has shifted in focus from whether R2P is a norm or principle to what the best practice is for implementation, signaling the international community’s general acceptance of R2P.

Another success Dr. Welsh noted was that the principle of R2P has fostered a wealth of multi-disciplinary applied research on the four triggers of R2P (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing), which was represented by the number of leading academics who participated in the Institute’s R2P Workshop.

In tackling the challenges for R2P, Dr. Welsh asserted that the framework for R2P, as developed by key authors in documents such as the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, still had some gaps which need to be addressed. This includes the framework’s focus so far on nation states while greater consideration of non-state actors as perpetrators of atrocities is needed given the changing nature of conflicts. Second, Dr. Welsh highlighted the overlap between the R2P agenda and the counter-terrorism agenda as an area for greater attention.

A third and conceptual challenge included the current predominating perception that pillar three of the R2P doctrine, regarding collective responsibility, is inherently about the use of military action, which therefore leads to the ‘reluctance of many states to act on their responsibility for fear of what it may mean’. Dr. Welsh emphasized that in order to make R2P a more effective tool for atrocity prevention, we must think more broadly about the political, economic and humanitarian tools available for collective action in order to overcome the barrier of political will. In terms of operational challenges, the UN Security Council’s inconsistent and selective application of R2P principles may affect the degree of legitimacy with which the principles are viewed.

During the question and answer session, Dr. Welsh was asked about the impact that the intervention in Libya would have on the future approval of R2P interventions by the UN Security Council. In response, she noted that whilst the Security Council, in particular Russia and China, continued to support resolutions that include R2P language, it is unlikely in the near future that they will adopt a resolution that includes R2P intervention without host-state consent. In continuing to advance R2P, Dr. Welsh raised the important work of the Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and R2P in linking the various agendas of the UN, including human rights, peacekeeping and stabilization operations and development, with the principle and agenda of R2P and the prevention of mass atrocities.

The resounding message from Dr. Welsh’s keynote was that there are a number of achievements to recognize in terms of how R2P has advanced and been accepted by the international community in a relatively short time period and that the principle has a great deal of potential, if engaged with properly and effectively. The profound insights of Dr. Welsh, as well as those from the expert practitioners and academics who participated in the R2P Workshop have provided a solid foundation for The Hague Institute’s new 30-month research project, ‘Responsibility to Protect and the Prevention of Mass Atrocities’, which will be led by the Conflict Prevention Program.

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