Effective and Responsible Protection
from Atrocity Crimes: Toward Global Action

Authors Thorsten Benner, Sarah Brockmeier, Erna Burai, C.S.R. Murthy, Christopher Daase, J. Madhan Mohan, Julian Junk, Xymena Kurowska, Gerrit Kurtz, Liu Tiewa, Wolfgang Reinicke, Philipp Rotmann, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Matias Spektor, Oliver Stuenkel, Marcos Tourinho, Harry Verhoeven, Zhang Haibin


Note We believe that credible policy options must emerge from a dialogue between scholars and practitioners. We, 18 researchers from Brazil, China, India and Europe, have spent two years investigating policy debates about the responsibility to protect. Our main findings are in this paper, and we applied these findings to develop policy options for more effective and responsible protection from atrocity crimes. We are not diplomats, war crimes analysts or peacekeepers, nor do we cover every important academic perspective. We had to make choices on where to focus our attention, but these choices are not set in stone. We look forward to your criticism, comments and alternative recommendations. Please email your ideas to protmann@gppi.net by 15 March 2015.



Beyond the “West” and the “Rest”: The Future of R2P

A decade after the United Nations adopted the principle of a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) people from atrocity crimes, the world’s record of protection remains grim. In 1948 the world pledged that it would “never again” allow genocide, yet it has failed the victims of genocide and mass atrocities many times since – including in Bangladesh in 1971, Cambodia in 1978, Rwanda in 1994 as well as in Srebrenica in 1995, a catastrophe to be commemorated this year.


Meanwhile, thousands in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and elsewhere suffer from crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing: the very offences covered by the pledge of the Responsibility to Protect. In March 2011 the imminent threat of mass killings of civilians in the Libyan city of Benghazi prompted a military intervention that probably saved many who would have otherwise been killed. The NATO-led coalition, however, opted to pursue a mission of regime change, and its local allies plunged the country into violent chaos that has spilled beyond its borders and cost many lives. This has increased concerns about the abuse of the R2P doctrine by great powers as well as the violent aftermath of military interventions. In Syria hundreds of thousands of civilians have died and millions have suffered from political deadlock in the UN Security Council and a dearth of credible proposals to protect them effectively. Even where the world agrees to act – in South Sudan, in the Central African Republic or in northern Iraq – governments and international organizations have often been too slow, or acted ineffectively. This is all the more tragic since there is potential for action to prevent mass atrocity crimes. To use atrocities as a weapon of war or an instrument of politics requires systematic planning and organization, and with careful and determined action these processes can be identified and disrupted. International action has a crucial role in contributing to this goal.1


If we believe the pundits, the future of protection from atrocities looks worse than the present. Many find only despair in the rise of powers whose elites were socialized in opposition to the Western-led order from which the Responsibility to Protect emerged. Prominent predictions see the emerging powers standing opposed to R2P and expect that, in the words of Michael Ignatieff, “their resistance to intervention will become increasingly influential.”2


The bleak image of failure is accurate, but the underlying assessment of global deadlock between “Western” interventionists and “non-Western” stalwarts of sovereignty, and a shifting balance toward the latter, is misleading in two critical ways: It misidentifies the core of the political conflict, and it fails to engage seriously with the practical challenges of protection from atrocity crimes. This finding is based on two years of research into the historical, cultural and institutional origins of how Brazil, China, Europe, India, Russia, South Africa and the United States engaged with the debate about a Responsibility to Protect, and how conflicts over its application in major crises have shaped the world’s expectations of protection from atrocities.


Leaving the old debates on sovereignty behind and picking the right battles, we argue, holds the potential for a more constructive debate that grapples with the difficulties and dilemmas of protection and seeks effective and responsible ways forward.


Because of the sheer scale of human suffering worldwide, it is hard to prioritize both among different crises and within each one. But for the same reason, it is necessary to do so, and not every human rights violation should spark the dangerous debates about coercive and military means of protection that R2P is inseparably linked with. Our research, therefore, has focused on the crimes covered by the 2005 World Summit definition of the Responsibility to Protect: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing (which we collectively refer to as atrocity crimes).


We find it crucial to retain a profound sense of humility about the extent of protection from these crimes that international influence can achieve. Local actors hold by far the greatest power over these dynamics. Even when measures are carefully calibrated to the context, external influence will never be able to do more than tip the balance. Our findings and analyses on international actions to prevent atrocities in the following should be read with this caveat in mind.

Outline of the Paper


In the following pages, we lay out our findings and their policy implications in two parts. In part one, we present our findings in greater detail. We argue that the two most important discussions around the protection from atrocity crimes should be around two issues: the abuse of humanitarian arguments (“responsible” protection) and the “how” of international action on protection (effective protection). We are argue that when discussing the latter question the international community and R2P advocates should not shy away from the most disputed aspect of these two questions: When and how can force protect, if at all? In part two, we provide policy options to illustrate practical ways to protect more effectively and responsible.

Findings: Rhetorical Legacies and Constructive Debates

Just as we have learnt that the world cannot stand aside when gross and systematic violations of human rights are taking place, we have also learnt that, if it is to enjoy the sustained support of the world’s peoples, intervention must be based on legitimate and universal principles.


– Kofi Annan, Two Concepts of Sovereignty (1999)3


Fairly or unfairly, the Responsibility to Protect is seen in large parts of the world as inextricably linked with disregard by the powerful for international law and with a white savior complex. Opposition to the Responsibility to Protect, in turn, is often regarded as the cynical insistence on sovereignty in the face of human suffering or misplaced South-South solidarity with repressive regimes. These are caricatures, legacies of the rhetorical battle lines of the 1990s. They emerged from the attempt to rebalance state sovereignty as protection from interference with individual sovereignty as protection from harm, which was quickly recast in an ahistorical and pernicious dichotomy of “responsible” (good) vs. “absolute” (bad) state sovereignty. This dichotomy is not only inaccurate, since countries the world over have long held the sovereignty of others in less than absolute regard. It is also hypocritical when espoused by governments whose record of responsible international behavior is itself not spotless. This line of debate has poisoned a lot of discussion about protection from atrocity crimes in the years that followed the Kosovo crisis and the US-led invasion of Iraq.


In our research we find that this line of argument has never been constructive. Moreover, it is no longer relevant. Beyond the occasional rhetorical grandstanding, we find that the core of the global political conflict over protection from atrocities has moved on. When faced with the worst atrocity crimes, the principled defense of non-intervention as resistance to Western hegemony is fading, and the mainstream portrayal of this position is a caricature. Of course, major conflicts over protection remain. They focus on two interrelated challenges of putting protection in practice: how to prevent the abuse of humanitarian arguments by great powers (“how to protect responsibly,” in the language promoted by Brazil) and how to protect effectively at all, particularly when the shadow of coercion and the use of force come into play. Both of these conflicts require serious engagement with the many difficulties and dilemmas they pose, beyond the simplistic and misleading stereotypes that have long dominated the debate about the Responsibility to Protect.

What is Undisputed: Protection from Atrocity Crimes Requires International Action


The idea that the protection of populations from atrocity crimes is not only a national but an international responsibility is accepted by most relevant actors around the globe. This acceptance is not a product of the R2P movement. It began to emerge already in the 1990s, when for people and governments alike “[t]oleration of mass atrocities no longer seemed acceptable – it seemed immoral.”4  Since then the expectations of protection have grown exponentially. Moral demands on third parties – humanitarians, diplomats, human rights observers, even military forces – to act preventively, effectively and in a way that balances individual protection with state sovereignty have come to far exceed the capacities and realistic possibilities to do so.


There is much greater and more widespread readiness to do what is accepted as necessary to protect populations from atrocity crimes. This support goes beyond individual groupings of states and far beyond “the West,” “liberal interventionists” or the members of the Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect. In fact, we found that in analyzing the politics of protection none of the neat splits between “North” and “South,” “Western” and “non-Western,” “emerging” and “established,” “democratic” and “authoritarian” are helpful. It was the non-aligned movement that was ready to authorise the strengthening of the UN peace operation in Rwanda in 1994, whereas the United States actively opposed it. While Western powers led the interventions in Kosovo and Libya to protect civilians, tens of thousands of peacekeepers from South Asia and Africa have helped to protect civilians in dozens of UN missions in the last 20 years.


Only a fringe group of governments is firmly opposed to an international role in protection from atrocity crimes regardless of circumstances. Some of these are themselves responsible for atrocity crimes. Others will interpret anything as part of an imperialist conspiracy by the great powers, specifically the United States. The concerns of these actors cannot and do not need to be met.


The concerns of other actors, however, do need to be taken seriously. They raise legitimate questions as to how the world can get better at protection from atrocity crimes in ways that are both effective and responsible, particularly in light of repeated failures and abuses of power. These concerns are voiced by a wide range of governments, intellectuals and media pundits across the world – including China, Brazil, India as well as Germany and other European countries. They agree with the idea that populations need to be protected but disagree in one way or the other with mainstream suggestions on how to do so. These critics have yet to live up to their own rhetoric in demanding more or better protection by investing in resources and ideas accordingly. But that does not make their arguments less valid.

What Remains Disputed: How to Protect Responsibly and Effectively?


Painting resistance to military interventions merely as the defense of sovereignty prevents a more respectful and constructive debate on effective and responsible protection. Brazil, India or South Africa did not so vehemently criticize NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya because they were concerned about violating Libyan sovereignty or because they opposed an international role in protecting civilians in Benghazi from imminent atrocities. Rather, they complained about the abuse of a Security Council mandate for a political goal other than protection (in this case, regime change).


Following Libya, military intervention will only be found legitimate if undertaken in a way that prevents further abuses by the great powers.5 For most of the world, the reality of abuse and great power hypocrisy dates back to the formative experience of Western colonial or imperial domination couched in supposedly universal values. The use of humanitarian justifications by British and US politicians for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 only heightened these concerns about “humanitarian intervention,” as did the Russian deployment of similar arguments to justify its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.6  It has formed one of the central reasons for suspicions about R2P ever since the concept was conceived.


Legitimate intervention does not require the unrealistic standard of purely altruistic motives. Protection requires resources and risk-taking, and those who provide these capacities and take these risks will in most cases be motivated by more than pure altruism. “Mixed motives” lead to particularly high scrutiny of military means,7  and rightly so, but most political actors in these debates are pretty realistic about this. As Libya illustrates, the line was crossed when incompatible motives – the removal of the Gaddafi regime, and the dictator himself, outside a convincing rationale that linked to protection – are seen to trump the concern for protection.


With the political battles about legitimate protection absorbing so much attention, it sometimes seems as if the practical question of how to effectively protect people from atrocities is a trivial one. It could not be more different. We find that what is actually necessary and likely to succeed in protecting people from atrocity crimes is legitimately open to debate and challenged in every case, not just when the use of force is involved. A review of the case studies in our research shows the uncertainties and ambiguities involved in decision making on protection: Does it further the goal of protection when a head of state is indicted by the ICC such as in the case of Sudan?8  Does it help or hinder protection when a crisis is labelled an “R2P situation” such as in Kenya or Myanmar?9  If the state is a perpetrator of atrocity crimes, is there a case in which military force can be used against it without pursuing regime change or plunging the country into chaos such as in Libya?10  When the international community has little direct influence over perpetrators of atrocity crimes, how to negotiate with them? Are states doing enough to cut off external financial support and to deny perpetrators from orchestrating atrocities from abroad? There are legitimate doubts about the available policy options and their risks. Compared to the considerable efforts made to promote R2P as a principle, too little is focused on finding and evaluating these difficult choices of putting protection from atrocity crimes into practice.

The Deeper Controversy: Can Force Protect?


While civil society advocates and UN officials working on R2P tend to focus tactically on areas of consensus, the main international controversy concerns military intervention and the use of force for protection. Rather than avoiding this debate, we find that more constructive and self-critical debate is essential to enabling effective and responsible protection in the future; that debate should be over the effectiveness of the use of force in protecting people from atrocity crimes, its chances of doing more good than harm, and its successes and failures in the past.


Large parts of the world are deeply uncomfortable with what they see as unfounded optimism that force are likely to achieve complex political goals, which is a separate concern from great power abuse. In every debate on the use of force over the last 10 years in crises such as those in Darfur, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria, questions of sovereignty have been intertwined with arguments about the “efficacy of force,” that is, whether force is more likely to contribute or harm the goal of civilian protection.11  The US-led invasion in Iraq loomed large in such discussions, not just as an example of an irresponsible choice by a hegemonic power that tends to lecture others on responsible global leadership but also as a stark reminder that even the world’s greatest military is evidently unable to forcibly build effective political order, with tragic consequences for many thousands of people in Iraq and beyond.


Still, during crises in Côte d’Ivoire (2011), Libya (2011) and the Central African Republic (2014), the Security Council was ready to legitimize military intervention “on a case-by-case basis,” as the World Summit had suggested. We observe that in each of these very specific cases, large majorities emerged that ultimately prioritized the need for military action over the widespread concern with maintaining state sovereignty, whether by voting in favor in the Security Council, by enabling the passage of resolutions through abstention (such as Russia and China in the case of Libya), or by providing financial, military or political support in other forums.


While there were some critical voices about the UN’s handling of the Côte d’Ivoire crisis, the only significant debate that emerged was about the way the United States, France and the United Kingdom led the intervention in Libya. In addition to the abuse of humanitarian arguments for regime change, another line of criticism argued that the large scale military operations would lead to more chaos in Libya and thereby more civilian deaths. Senior Brazilian diplomats, for example, challenge the military case for regime change, a case that the US, UK and France never dared to make explicit: why not stop the assault when the immediate threats to civilian population were eliminated and Gaddafi’s forces had been stopped in their advance, and force all sides to the negotiating table? What responsibility did the intervening coalition take for the actions of its de-facto allies on the ground, the Libyan rebel forces? How did the intervening coalition balance the risks and rewards of different strategic choices, and why exactly was it “not possible to imagine a future with Gaddafi in power,” as Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy claimed in The New York Times?12  Similar questions have been asked with regard to suggestions of military intervention in Syria, and the lack of convincing answers has likely played a very important role in shelving a series of unilateral intervention plans over the years.


In the case of Libya, most of the world concluded that there was probably no military rationale for regime change and that the leaders of the coalition had strategic goals other than civilian protection. At the same time, the debate revealed a gaping hole on the key questions of protection by military force – questions that surface every time intervention is discussed, including by “robust” UN peace operations.


The practicalities of how to use force and how much to use in relation to other forms of influence bring out deep divisions between two camps that split along fundamental tenets of strategic culture: those who are largely optimistic that force can achieve good things such as civilian protection, and those who are mostly pessimistic about that, and more likely to believe that using military force would make things worse. Valid concerns about the utility of force are voiced for a variety of political motives. Neither the high priesthood of non-violence (not just in Delhi, Brasília or Beijing but also in Berlin, for example) nor the believers in effective military coercion (not just in Paris, London and Washington but also in Moscow) have seriously invested in analyzing the promise and perils of force as a tool of protection.


The missing element is particularly striking when compared to the global debates about the appropriate use of military force to fight international terrorist networks and insurgencies. In both of these cases, there is a nuanced discussion in professional military and law enforcement circles as well as major news outlets on issues such as targeted killings of suspected terrorists or population-centric counterinsurgency tactics. In contrast, as a senior US diplomat and former Pentagon official recently wrote, while “political leaders can closely envision what a naval blockade or a no-fly zone would entail, [they] face difficulty anticipating the implementation and implications of civilian protection efforts. The absence of military doctrine and analysis also preclude[s] military leaders from articulating requirements and choices in advance.”13 


Instead of the possible merits and risks of different military choices, then, debates about military intervention are couched in terms of vague beliefs in the efficacy (or not) of military force to help achieve political goals. These general preferences are caricatured as “hubris” and “callousness” as often as they are self-servingly employed as “responsibility” or “restraint,” at least until Brazil challenged the pro-interventionist monopoly on the language of responsibility.14  Despite the inherent uncertainty of each crisis, either side of this divide presents these beliefs with great conviction, often in terms of truisms: “there can only be a political solution”15  or “there cannot be a future for Libya/Syria with Gaddafi/Assad in power”16  are only two prominent patterns that fail to acknowledge the complex reality of any crisis, and thereby invite mutual stereotyping rather than constructive discussion. The results have been predictable exchanges of reflexive anti-Western reactions in the South (“they just want to invade our countries”) and reflexive anti-Southern reactions in the West (“they always side with their fellow dictators”).


There appears to be a trend toward more nuanced engagement with the practicalities of using military force for protection. Societies and strategic communities in the US, the UK and France have shown signs of becoming tired of interventions in general and unilateral intervention in particular. At the same time, some of the staunchest advocates of reflexive military restraint like China, Brazil and Germany have begun to consider, in particular cases, arguments for military action to protect civilians.17 Both advocates and skeptics of military protection stand to gain from pushing for greater nuance in these debates. For one side, the demand of specificity will guard against the abuse of humanitarian authority for other purposes, and for the other, providing greater transparency will help defend against such charges of abuse.

Policy Options for More Effective and Responsible Protection

If the two main global controversies around the protection of people from atrocity crimes evolve around the fear of abuse of humanitarian arguments and the question of how to effectively protect, what are the options to find global solutions for protection? Based on our findings, we outline policy options to improve the credibility of existing tools such as preventive diplomacy and UN peacekeeping by guarding against their abuse and making them more effective to gradually make progress on the prevention of atrocity crimes.

We begin with necessary reforms for decision-making in the UN Security Council. We then provide some options on the key findings and challenges we have identified: ensuring credible information and analysis on atrocity situations, improving preventive diplomacy and reforming the UN peace operations in a way that they can contribute more effectively to the protection from atrocity crimes.

Improvements in the UN Security Council


Today’s collective security system with the UN Security Council at its core is not up to the task of providing effective and responsible protection. Both the composition and the working methods of the UN Security Council reflect the world order of the 1940s. Not only is the council unable to act effectively when geopolitical interests collide. It even fails in situations in which the abuse of humanitarian arguments is not at stake and the interests of key council members align – such as recently in the Central African Republic or South Sudan. A council that is both able to mandate and mobilize effective protection and limits the fear of abuse of humanitarian arguments would need to draw on voices of all major political players in today’s world, troop contributing countries and major financial contributors.


The five permanent members of the UN Security Council should support a reform of the council’s working methods towards more inclusive and participatory decision-making within the council and opening up informal channels of consultation on mandates, strategy and operations to all crucial stakeholders, particularly regional powers and major personnel contributors.


With a reform of the UN Security Council unlikely to happen in the short term, there are tangible and manageable reforms that can be implemented. The working methods of the council severely limit the representativeness of the council that is needed for finding global responses to atrocity crimes. The hierarchy between permanent and non-permanent members is at the core of the council’s operating procedures. Inevitably, elected members do not share the knowledge of past agreements (or the shadow of the future for future ones) that mark negotiations between permanent members. They are effectively excluded from informal negotiations where many of the most important decisions are taken.  The same member states remain responsible for items on the agenda for several decades. It is not uncommon for former colonial powers to be “pen holders” of their former colonies in the Security Council agenda. It is primarily upon the permanent members to devolve influence both in the Security Council and in their interactions with the Secretariat, while those that want access need to develop the analytical and political capacity to constructively co-manage peace operations rather than defending just their own interests. In the context of working methods reform, member states and civil society organizations should also continue the discussions on a code of conduct for a voluntary restraint of the veto right in situations of atrocity crimes as proposed by the French government.


Actors with the credibility to bridge the polarized debate on military intervention should facilitate informal efforts to develop a more stringent monitoring and reporting system for states implementing UN-mandated missions, accommodating concerns raised during the Libya intervention and in the Responsibility while Protecting proposal.


The Responsibility while Protecting concept (RwP) is one of the most promising initiatives to address the global disagreements on abuse of the Responsibility to Protect. When it was put forward by Brazil in late 2011, it provided an opportunity to debate what effective protection could look like and what role the use of force should or should not play in protecting at a moment in time after the Libya intervention when these discussions were extremely polarized.18  After this experience, it is very unlikely that the UN Security Council will pass a resolution authorizing an outside force for protection with such broad language again in the future. Implementing some of the ideas in the RwP proposal is therefore in the interest of all states that believe that force should be a tool available to the international community as a measure of last resort. One issue that needs further discussion concerns the criteria and conditions under which the council should deploy force to protect populations. While the discussion on criteria for the use of force is as old as the discussion on humanitarian intervention,19  all member states – as we noted above – would benefit from an honest debate on the successes and failures of using force in the past, and their implications for using force in the future. Another, more practical issue concerns how to increase the ability of the council to hold those who implement council decisions accountable. Two concrete suggestions include:


  • Adapt elements of the peacekeeping system, such as regular reporting and briefings to situations of delegation of the use of force to third parties. These could include explicit “sunset clauses” in resolutions that would require an extension of the mandate by the Security Council and specific regular reporting requirements by those member states that implement council decisions to the council.20
  • Create an accountability and monitoring mechanism by establishing panels of experts when the council mandates the use of force modelled after the UN Sanctions Committees. Reports of independent committees like these can create a standard practice and could contribute to improving over time the quality of decisions taken by the council both before and during military operations.


All member states of the United Nations and civil society advocates for R2P should use the September 2015 summit at the United Nations as an opportunity to make progress on Security Council reform.


The anachronistic composition of the Security Council undermines both its legitimacy and political weight. A vast majority of member states support some version or another of reform. Yet serious progress on reform has been prevented due to resistance by the US, Russia and China in particular to seriously engage with ideas for reform, as well as a lack for a common strategy of all the existing initiatives, coalitions and groups and the lack of unity within various regional groups. There is an increasing number of detailed suggestions by scholars,21  think tanks experts22  and member states on how to reform the council and how to get there. Among other ideas, suggestions include adding more permanent members, assigning regional seats, introducing voting reforms, implementing continuous reelection of specific non-permanent members, and creating more regional offices and representations at the UN. The permanent members need to start to seriously engage with these ideas. It is also in the long-term interest of the five permanent members on the Security Council to support a reform process that could lead to a more effective international system and a working international legal order.

Reducing the Vulnerability of Information Sources to Accusations of Bias


To even begin to consider ways of addressing looming or ongoing atrocities, the world needs to agree on what is going on in any given situation. In today’s world, the availability of information on specific crisis situations is no longer the main challenge for mobilizing action. Yet we find that one crucial challenge for protection from atrocity crimes has been the accusation of bias regarding the type and interpretation of information about atrocities that is provided by governments, by the world’s media or by civil society groups. A healthy skepticism against accusations of heinous atrocities by any source is only prudent, but trust in leading states and international institutions is running so low that even well-documented cases such as in Darfur have been dismissed as interventionist propaganda.23 


To provide for a better informed foreign policy debate, media corporations and philanthropists, particularly in emerging powers, should invest in independent and credible sources of information and analysis about conflicts and human rights.


Oftentimes, Western-based, -funded or -staffed sources are by far the most accessible ones, not just for policy elites in faraway capitals but also for expert panels and inquiries of the United Nations in countries without an extensive UN field presence. When local government sources are obviously discredited, as in Syria, and access to violent areas is limited for journalists, sometimes all relevant remaining sources come from news or advocacy organizations headquartered in the West, from local civil society organizations that depend on Western or other foreign funding and that hold specific anti-government agendas, or from Western professionals working for the UN.24  The Chinese government, for example, often emphasizes that the international identification and assessment of human rights abuses abroad is too dependent on Western information and has called for more impartial early warning systems.25 


The allegation of bias (whether pro- or anti-government or something else) can flourish only when there is a paucity of sources. Those who criticize existing information sources know best whose money and influence might provide greater credibility, so it is upon them to invest accordingly. If governments and policy elites outside the West are suspicious of Western sources of information, they could help diversify the support base of existing globally active NGOs and media networks, or invest in platforms for alternative reporting and analysis based on the highest standards of journalistic integrity. For now, with few exceptions, investing in free media and access to information do not seem to enjoy the highest priority among emerging entrepreneurial elites, even in democratic emerging powers. State-run news agencies, in turn, are often struggling to establish a reputation for journalistic integrity. Serious investments into reporting on humanitarian crises, such as the recent investment of the Hong Kong-based Jynwel Foundation in the now independent news organization IRIN,26  remain exceptions.


Member states, civil society and regional organizations should enhance the UN’s capacities for fact-finding and information-gathering on protection challenges by providing logistical assistance, short-term staff and local information sources.


The United Nations cannot always meet the need for impartial, credible information on atrocity risks all by itself. Not only are UN mechanisms often forced to rely on government and private sources for reasons of time pressure and lack of coverage by its own political and human rights organizations. The UN has also been subject to self-censorship and been forced to cut political compromises in the past.27 


All UN member states need to strengthen UN fact-finding mechanisms and commissions of inquiry and related bodies and to contribute trained experts to these missions. Investment into independent fact-finding mechanisms by UN bodies or regional organizations can help to ensure that the composition of members in fact-finding missions serves their credibility and impartiality. One option to improve the credibility and impartiality of UN fact-finding could be to work towards a set of standardized rules for the selection of fact-finders to make the selection process as transparent as possible.28 


In order to deliver more coherent, quick and concentrated information and analysis on protection challenges in the areas of UN activity, the UN Secretariat is currently strengthening the role of human rights in all its work. As part of this “Human Rights Up Front” initiative, led by the Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, the UN is creating a streamlined information management system on all the data that different entities are collecting with regard to protection.29  Until now, different agencies and advisors have kept different lists and used varying methodologies to cover humanitarian protection, human rights protection, protection of women in armed conflict, and child protection. The more coherent this system is, and the more local sources feed into it, the greater the effectiveness and legitimacy of its results.

Preventive Diplomacy


The early prevention of atrocity crimes by non-coercive measures save lives, while being less costly than any coercive measures taken once violence has been escalated. At least on a rhetorical level, there is widespread agreement that prevention and state capacity building should have priority when addressing mass atrocity prevention challenges.


The international community has learned important lessons on when preventive diplomacy can work, such as during the post-election crisis in Kenya in 2008,30  when a high-profile negotiator led the talks with regional backing with support by UN expertise, with engagement of civil society and with consistent support by all Security Council members. Mediation capacities have been significantly expanded within the UN, and regional organizations over the past 10 years and political missions have increased both by the United Nations and many regional organizations.


Yet, the international community has failed again and again in its preventive diplomacy efforts when it comes to atrocity crimes. We find that the consensus that appears to exist on prevention as a priority falls apart as soon as it requires real political tradeoffs and priority setting. This process is much more complex than common caricatures that blame only Western countries for investing too little or non-Western powers for “blocking” negotiation efforts. Not only do competing priorities and interests exist universally. The challenge is also a function of the deep uncertainty about how to conduct preventive diplomacy, with which actors, when and in which forum. There is no blueprint or checklist for effective preventive diplomacy.


Focusing on shorter term, targeted preventive measures in situations where atrocities are likely to occur or have already began to occur,31  we find there are two main areas that should be addressed:


Those actors (particularly emerging powers) that call for prevention the loudest need to match their rhetorical commitment with the required political will and investment into capacities and ideas for preventive diplomacy. 


Going beyond rhetoric on prevention requires the political will to make it a priority. Too often, the prevention of atrocity crimes collides with other political objectives in a particular crisis situation. At times, these interests or priorities are directly opposed to each other: In Sri Lanka in early 2009, for example, the government was able to leverage the overwhelming international concern with counterterrorism to deflect pressure about war crimes perpetrated in the fight against the LTTE.32  In Darfur, international diplomatic action to stop atrocity crimes had to compete with the priority for a peace agreement in the long-standing North-South civil war, and with counterterrorism collaboration with the Sudanese government.


However, even in cases in which most actors agree that the prevention of conflict and atrocity crimes should be a priority, there is glaring gap between abstract support for the protection of populations from atrocity crimes and the political will to act, spend and take risks accordingly. There is a great mismatch, for example, between the rhetoric of demanding more “political/diplomatic solutions” as constantly emphasized by China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa (as well as Germany and the European Union) and the political and material resources they invest into pursuing such solutions. A recent example in which these investments should have come earlier and more decisively include South Sudan – a crisis that also shows that “West” versus “rest” categories are not helpful to advance policy discussions on protection. For different reasons both the United States and China strongly supported Salva Kiir’s government until it became one of the warring factions of South Sudan’s new civil war, ignoring warning signs until it was too late.33  In the Central African Republic, early investments into rule-of-law initiatives and security-sector reforms could have prevented the country from plunging into violence of the current scale.34  Yet effective preventive diplomacy relies on political and technical elements that are often in short supply. These include competent mediators and well-trained senior envoys; the capacity and resources to deploy them rapidly; rule-of-law initiatives; dialogues; human rights monitoring; and political missions by the UN and regional organizations. Surprisingly often, it appears that the huge uncertainty of military success is less of a political obstacle to using force than is the likelihood of diplomatic failure to employ whatever influence one can bring to bear.


Policymakers should avoid equating criminality with irrelevance, avoid closing entire avenues of diplomacy and negotiation if not ready to enforce their preferred outcome, and hold all actors in a conflict to the same standards of behavior.


Too often, policymakers find themselves trapped between communicating either indifference or outrage. The example of Western diplomacy on Syria should be a warning. Having called for the removal of Syrian leader Bashar Assad six months into the crisis, Western leaders precluded political opportunities of negotiating with the Syrian regime. Partly driven by human rights advocacy and domestic politics, it has become politically attractive in some countries to embark on a path of rhetorical escalation against the reported perpetrators and their political sponsors. It is easier for foreign ministers and politicians to tell the press that “Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave”35  or that “there can be no peaceful or democratic future for Syria that involves Assad”36  than to face difficult questions about spending scarce political attention and limited financial resources or even deploying troops.


While often well-crafted and intuitively convincing, such statements obscure two uncomfortable realities. First, when violence reigns, legitimacy is not the main determinant of political power, and short-term calculations tend to drown out longer-term ones. Syria is one example: Despite his regime’s heinous record of atrocities, Bashar al-Assad remains in power and sufficiently in control, and all attempts to exclude him from Syrian politics have failed. Whether or not there is a plausible counterfactual of international engagement with Syria since 2011 that might have limited the bloodshed and offered greater protection to its people, driving any relevant actor into a corner is not an effective negotiating strategy.


Second, only because there is one clearly identifiable group of perpetrators of known atrocities at some point in time does not mean that other groups have been and are going to remain innocent of such acts. Violence tends to beget violence, as threatened groups defend themselves and carry the fight to the enemy. Here, Libya is a good example. In spring 2011, correctly identifying Gaddafi’s regime as responsible for atrocity crimes was the right thing to do – but it did not inoculate the rebels against committing such abuses in the future, which some groups predictably did, and those supporting them militarily became complicit.


Both types of political choices – painting clear enemies, and falling in with the wrong friends – are observed very closely around the world. When side-taking cannot be justified by virtue of acceptable behavior, it becomes arbitrary in the eyes of the world, and the political purpose of engagement is easily seen as hypocritical and painted as part of some conspiracy theory.


Similarly, in the vein of careful preventive diplomacy, advocates for R2P and atrocity prevention among governments as well as civil society need to be careful when and how to call for Security Council consideration of an emerging crisis. There will be situations in which the council can make it more difficult to mediate by elevating the crisis to a highly visible political level. It can help mediators by giving them more leverage: sense of urgency, incentives and disincentives (eg, with targeted sanctions, travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, investigations, establishment of a political mission). But in some situations, high-level international pressure, including a potential role of the Security Council, may prove to be counterproductive. It may enforce a government’s urgency to finish a war at all costs, as in the case of Sri Lanka in early 2009,37  or complicate negotiations for humanitarian access, as in Myanmar in May 2008.38  Particularly when facing governments that already find themselves excluded from the international community, lower profile forums and channels might be more effective at influencing behavior.

Enabling UN Peacekeeping to Provide Credible Protection


Peacekeeping is a system with great global legitimacy that already guards against abuse and that has begun to focus on the protection of civilians (PoC) in many of its operations. The global composition and strict control by the Security Council makes peacekeeping operations far more acceptable to a wide range of stakeholders than any other instrument, notably the use of force by third parties under Security Council mandate.39  At the same time, peacekeeping is only able to address a limited set of protection challenges: The lack of rapid and effective deployment mechanisms makes it impossible for UN peacekeepers to respond to imminent threats of atrocity crimes, and the legal as well as practical requirement of collaboration with the host government limits effective action against perpetrators of atrocity crimes who are part of that government or enjoy its support. Even where peacekeepers were already in place as atrocity crimes were being prepared, as recently in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 and in South Sudan in 2013, perfect prevention was elusive. And where an immediate reaction did not succeed, the challenges of effective protection from ongoing crimes proved to quickly exceed the capabilities of blue helmets.


The many ways in which peacekeeping operations could better protect populations from atrocity crimes by building capacity, reducing vulnerability (“indirect protection”) and defending against perpetrators (“direct protection”) have been spelled out elsewhere.40  To live up even to a moderate level of ambition for peacekeepers to protect populations from atrocity crimes would require additional investments in capacities, doctrine and training. It would also require a hard look at how to use peacekeeping more effectively together with political instruments.


The Security Council, DPKO, mission leadership and contributing countries need to modestly and transparently communicate the limits of the UN’s capabilities to protect civilians on the ground.


The welcome and necessary commitment of the UN Security Council to deliver protection has led to excessive promises41  that have widened the gap between local expectations and a mission’s capacity to deliver. When thousands of peacekeepers are mandated with great fanfare but only a fraction arrive six months later, as in South Sudan in December 2013 following the eruption of the latest civil war, or when peacekeepers refuse to act while atrocity crimes are committed in the vicinity (whether due to inadequate support or leadership), as recently in the DRC or the Sudan, people who gather around the blue flag in the hope of protection can be put in greater danger than if they had fled elsewhere. Overall, threatened populations are still much better off with peacekeepers than without, but the credibility of the United Nations is nonetheless affected by such cases.42


Both effective and responsible protection require honest, transparent communication about every mission’s and every contingent’s capabilities and their willingness to take risks – with the public as well as with the Security Council. When council diplomats create or reauthorize another ambitious mandate for civilian protection, they need to be told formally about the capacity and capability requirements that would entail.


Protection by peacekeepers requires a boost in the quality of contributions to blue helmet operations, and that requires that the UNSC, DPKO, troop/police and financial contributors find a fairer and more balanced division of labor. If mandated to deter or even defeat perpetrators of atrocity crimes, blue helmets need advanced military and police capabilities, which requires greater investment by contributing countries – particularly by wealthy and growing economies that need to take on a larger part of the burden.


The fragile balance between troop contributors (mostly from Africa and Asia), funders (mostly from Europe and North America) and the permanent members of the UN Security Council issuing mandates is close to the breaking point. The unsustainable division of labor in peacekeeping is not a matter of the West against the rest. Many African countries, tired of years of failed attempts by external powers to bring peace to a multitude of conflicts on the continent, increasingly demand and support the use of military force to protect civilians and buy time for peace negotiations. Large traditional troop contributors, in contrast, are increasingly weary of putting the lives of their soldiers at risk in faraway places – particularly those, like India, whose emerging role on the global stage has given rise to expectations of having influence over strategic choices that have thus far remained the exclusive domain of the permanent members. Combined with the austerity-induced unwillingness of advanced militaries to step up their contributions of key assets that could limit the risk to all blue helmets – such as aerial surveillance, advanced reconnaissance systems or helicopters – many developing countries are becoming increasingly impatient with a system that does not work for them any longer.


To make progress on the prevention of atrocity crimes, both wealthy and growing economies need to expand the resources they deploy for UN peacekeeping, but the main burden to alleviate the current imbalance is on countries with advanced capabilities. They need make key military and police assets available to limit the risk for all blue helmets and increase the cost efficiency and effectiveness of peacekeeping. These include surveillance drones, mine-protected vehicles, military hospitals, airborne medical evacuation, combat air support, air lift, counter-IED equipment and other advanced technology. However, it is not just European and North American countries that deploy very few troops and provide far less to peacekeeping than they could. India has shown longstanding and extensive support for peacekeeping – a rare exception among countries with ambitions of regional or global leadership. Others should consider following the recent example of China and put greater numbers of qualified troops, police or civilians at the UN’s disposal. Brazil, for instance, despite its leadership role in Haiti, still deploys less personnel than tiny Togo and Burkina Faso.


All Security Council members and peacekeeping contributors should improve conceptual guidance, training and capacity building for protection of civilians from atrocity crimes.


Both the development of political strategies and the use of force for tactical protection of civilians sorely lack the solid conceptual foundation that any other type of military operation can rely on. The political, police and military challenges of protection from atrocity crimes do not receive adequate conceptual attention and training resources in almost any country.43  Not surprisingly, therefore, today mission leaders and force commanders operate on a trial and error basis without clear guidance or doctrine. Likewise, council members – particularly non-permanent ones – are forced to take hard decisions about the protection of civilians without having access to a body of political-military analysis on what particular tasks would entail on the ground. The lack of clear, commonly understood concepts about practical ways of protection (beyond no-fly zones) contributes to mutual stereotyping and suspicions of ulterior motives.


The United States should continue to expand its Global Peace Operations Initiative and “African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership,” which bolster other countries’ capabilities to train and sustain peacekeeping capacities. Both should focus more strongly on those militaries that frequently deploy in peacekeeping. In the future, training and exercises within the Global Peace Operations Initiative and beyond should specifically include different aspects of civilian protection.44  The European Union should refocus and expand its Enable and Enhance Initiative to build the capacities and capabilities of major contributors to peace operations (UN, AU or sub-regional organizations) and help aspiring troop and police contributors achieve the necessary level of training and equipment. 


Use the current review of UN peace operations to build consensus among all stakeholders (UNSC, Secretariat as well as troop, police, and financial contributors) on the use of force only to support – never to replace – a political strategy for protection from atrocity crimes, and to design mandates and operations accordingly.


As part of necessary dialogue on the utility of the use of force, the current review of UN peace operations provides an opportunity to rebuild a common language on peacekeeping, its basic principles and concepts, and the ambitions and challenges for the protection tasks of UN missions, in particular regarding the use of force. The principles of consent, impartiality and neutrality, updated through the Brahimi Report to allow peacekeepers to act against violators of peace agreements and perpetrators of atrocities, are once again being bent or appear irrelevant in many operations. The majority of peacekeepers today are serving in active conflict situations, as in Mali or the Central African Republic. UN peacekeepers are conducting active combat operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In other places, the agreements on which a mission was founded many decades ago do not cover the parties that are threatening or abducting peacekeepers today.


While some ambiguity over principles is unavoidable, the active use of force is incompatible with using peace operations to replace rather than to support a political strategy to manage complex crises.45  Where there is no realistic political strategy to make peace, there might at least be one to limit the risks to civilians – if necessary, one that includes the support of military force by UN troops, as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These questions require honest discussions between all stakeholders in UN peace operations. Current fault lines in these discussions are by no means running between Western supporters of more force and non-Western resistance: Currently, they run mostly between big traditional troop contributing countries like India and Pakistan, who worry about increased risks to their troops, and the more interventionist coalition of African and Western European countries.


  1. As the Genocide Prevention Task Force, a private blue-ribbon panel in the United States, aptly argued in 2008. See Ruben Reike, Serena Sharma, and Jennifer Welsh, 'A Strategic Framework for Mass Atrocity Prevention',   (Australian Civil-Military Centre and Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, 2013). 6ff.
  2. Rahul Rao, Third World Protest: Between Home and the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.83; Michael Ignatieff, 'The Libya Case, a Teachable Moment',  Süddeutsche Zeitung Special Supplement (2012), David Bosco, 'Abstention Games on the Security Council',  Foreign Policy (2011).
  3. Kofi Annan, 'Two Concepts of Sovereignty', The Economist, 1999.
  4. Rosa Brooks, 'The Un Security Council and Civilian Protection', in Jared Genser and Bruno Ugarte, eds. The Un Security Council in the Age of Human Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).; On the global basis for the norms of protection see Charles Sampford, 'A Tale of Two Norms', in Angus Francis, Vesselin Popovski, and Charles Sampford, eds. Norms of Protection: Responsibility to Protect, Protection of Civilians and Their Interaction (United Nations University Press, 2012), Philipp Rotmann, Gerrit Kurtz, and Sarah Brockmeier, 'Major Powers and the Contested Evolution of a Responsibility to Protect: Introduction', Conflict, Security and Development 14:4, 2014.
  5. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review). 
  6. Judi Atkins, Justifying New Labour Policy (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 163. See, for example, Oliver Stuenkel and Marcos Tourinho, 'Regulating Intervention: Brazil and the Responsibility to Protect', Conflict, Security & Development 14:4, 2014.
  7. Roland Paris, 'The 'Responsibility to Protect' and the Structural Problems of Preventive Humanitarian Intervention', International Peacekeeping 21:5, 2014, 4.
  8. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  9. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  10. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  11. Alastair Iain Johnston, 'Thinking About Strategic Culture', International Security 19:4, 1995, 46. 
  12. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  13. Sarah Sewall, 'Civilian Protection', in Mary Kaldor and Iavor Rangelov, eds. The Handbook of Global Security Policy (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2014).
  14. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review). 
  15. Guido Westerwelle, 'Bundesminister Westerwelle- Statement Vom 25.03.2011 Zu Syrien, Jemen, Israel Und Dem Gaza-Streifen Sowie Libyen',  Auswärtiges Amt (2011), Otto Bakkano, 'Au Pushes for Ceasefire, Political Solution in Libya',  Mail & Guardian (2011). 
  16. Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, 'Libya's Pathway to Peace',  The International Herald Tribune (2011), Reuters, 'Kerry Insists No Place for Assad in Syria's Future',  Reuters (Washington, 2014). 
  17. Rotmann, Kurtz, and Brockmeier, 'Major Powers and the Contested Evolution of a Responsibility to Protect: Introduction'. 
  18. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review). 
  19. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  20. Compare also Alex J Bellamy, The Responsibility to Protect. A Defense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 200. 
  21. Deborah Nathaniel Ayis, 'Is the United Nations Security Council Equitably Representative?', PRIAD Policy Journal 1:2, 2013. 
  22. Richard Gowan and Nora Gordon, 'Pathways to Security Council Reform', Centre on International Cooperation, New York University, 2014. 
  23. Harry Verhoeven documents the example of a senior Chinese diplomat, who “thought the West had invented the Janjaweed [pro-government militias in Darfur] as an excuse to intervene…But they were real and they killed people!” Harry Verhoeven, 'Is Beijing's Non-Interference Policy History? How Africa Is Changing China', The Washington Quarterly 37:2, 2014, 64. 
  24. B.S. Chimni, 'For Epistemological and Prudent Internationalism', Harvard Law School Human Rights Journal November 2012, 2012, Greg Simons, 'The International Crisis Group and the Manufacturing and Communicating of Crises', Third World Quarterly 35:4, 2014. Ramesh Thakur, 'Is the United Nations Racist?',  The Hindu (2013). 
  25. Ambassador Liu Zhenmin, 'Statement by Ambassador Liu Zhenmin at the Plenary Session of the General Assembly on the Question of "Responsibility to Protect" ',   (New York, 2009). 
  26. IRIN, 'A New Start for Crisis Reporting',  IRIN (2014).
  27. See for example: United Nations, 'Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka',   (New York United Nations, 2012). 
  28. Morten Bergsmo, 'Quality Control in Fact-Finding',   (Florence: Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher, 2013). 
  29. United Nations, 'Rights up Front. A Plan of Action to Strengthen the Un’s Role in Protecting People in Crises. Follow-up to the Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on Un Action in Sri Lanka',   (New York, 2013). 
  30. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  31. For distinction between „systemic“ and „targeted“ activities see Reike, Sharma, and Welsh, 'A Strategic Framework for Mass Atrocity Prevention'. 
  32. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  33. Mike Brand, 'Employing 'Prevention' to Prevent Mass Atrocities',  Saferworld (2014). 
  34. Adam Lupel, 'Un Adviser on Prevention of Genocide: "We Have to Make Sure the Security Council Acts"',   (International Peace Institute, 2014). 
  35. Barack Obama at joint press conference with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, see www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/03/03/president-libya-violence-must-stop-muammar-gaddafi-has-lost-legitimacy-lead-and-he-m Jesse Lee, 'The President on Libya: "The Violence Must Stop; Muammar Gaddafi Has Lost the Legitimacy to Lead and He Must Leave"',  The White House Blog (2011). 
  36. William Hague, 'All at London 11 Meeting Agreed That There Can Be No Peaceful or Democratic Future for #Syria That Involves Assad',  Twitter (2013). 
  37. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  38. Junk, 'Testing Boundaries – Myanmar, Nargis and the Scope of R2P', Madhan Mohan Jaganathan and Gerrit Kurtz, 'Singing the Tune of Sovereignty? India and the Responsibility to Protect', Conflict, Security & Development 14:4, 2014. 
  39. (Forthcoming academic paper, currently under review).
  40. Alex J. Bellamy and Charles T. Hunt, 'Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect in Peace Operations',  Working Paper No. 3, Program on the Protection of Civilians (Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2010), Bellamy, The Responsibility to Protect. A Defense. 
  41. Ashley Jackson, 'Protecting Civilians: The Gap between Norms and Practice',  Policy Brief 56 (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2014). 
  42. This was already described in 2009 in the “New Horizon” report by DPKO: “The mismatch between expectations and capacity to provide comprehensive protection creates a significant credibility challenge for UN peacekeeping.” “Department of Peacekeeping Operations, 'A New Partnership Agenda: Charting a New Horizon for Un Peacekeeping', in United Nations, ed.  (New York, 2009). 
  43. Bellamy and Hunt, 'Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect in Peace Operations', Sewall, 'Civilian Protection'. 
  44. This could be based on the Mass Atrocities Response Operations project by the US Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights. See Sarah Sewall, Dwight Raymond, and Sally Chin, Mass Atrocity Response Operations: A Military Planning Handbook (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, 2010).   
  45. Mats Berdal and David H. Ucko, 'The United Nations and the Use of Force: Between Promise and Peril', Journal of Strategic Studies 37:5, 2014.