What is it about?

In 2005, all States agreed that they had a responsibility to protect their own populations from atrocity crimes, as well as a responsibility to help other States protect their populations from atrocity crimes. The responsibility to protect (R2P) has since been defined as comprising three ‘pillars’: (1) the responsibility of a State to protect its own population from atrocity crimes; (2) the responsibility of States to support other States to protect their populations; and (3) the responsibility of the international community to respond, when States manifestly fail to protect their populations. This article considers what this requires States to do in Ukraine. It begins by considering how the R2P’s ‘three-pillar’ implementation strategy is to be understood in relation to a situation in which atrocities are being perpetrated not by a State against its own population but by an aggressor State; and then considers the parallels between what is required of States by the political commitment to the R2P, and what is required by the legal obligations to prevent genocide and to cooperate to end serious breaches of peremptory norms. The second part of the article then considers a series of options that States could pursue to fulfil their R2P and corresponding legal obligations, from options falling short of military intervention (including legal proceedings, economic and diplomatic sanctions and military assistance) through to the possibility of UN peacekeeping.

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Why is it important?

Preliminary investigations into the situation in Ukraine suggest that Russian forces are almost certainly committing crimes against humanity and war crimes - that is, just the crimes in relation to which all States have agreed that they have a responsibility to protect, wherever they are. As of early August, more than 5,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine and more than 7,000 injured, and Russia is showing no signs of relenting. Because of Russia's power of veto in the Security Council and the nuclear threat, options available to the international community to stop the violence appear limited - and thus far have been ineffective. This article presents a range of options, for consideration by States, that should be pursued as part of a comprehensive strategy of using all reasonably available means - or at least, those that would not cause more harm than good - to protect the Ukrainian population. It reminds States of their political commitment to the responsibility to protect, and highlights also that States have an obligation to respond to the situation in Ukraine not only because of their political commitment to the responsibility to protect but because of their legal obligations.


Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, there has been a suggestion that the situation attests to the irrelevance of the commitment by States in 2005 to protect populations, wherever they are, from atrocity crimes. I hope this article helps dispel this suggestion. To the contrary, the situation in Ukraine highlights the fundamental and enduring importance of the political commitment to the responsibility to protect - a commitment that has been consistently reiterated by States for more than 15 years - and its utility as both a call to action and a framework for principled decision-making.

Rebecca Barber

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: What Does the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Require of States in Ukraine?, Journal of International Peacekeeping, August 2022, Brill, DOI: 10.1163/18754112-25020005.
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