Crash Course on The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine

By Jessica Bennett


The Trojan Horse is an ancient tale dating back to the Trojan war. Legend has it that the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and hid their soldiers inside. The horse entered the city of Troy, the soldiers emerged and the Greeks won the war. Today the Trojan Horse, is a metaphor that has come to represent something that is a facade or a stratagem. Some argue that the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P) is simply a Trojan Horse, enabling international military intervention whilst masking the self-interested motivations of interveners. With past ‘humanitarian intervention’ efforts in countries such as Libya and Iraq, it is clear to see why the metaphor of the ‘Trojan Horse’ has been used in conjunction with the R2P doctrine.

So, what exactly is R2P?


The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

The late 90s was an era of humanitarian crisis. Notably, the Rwanda genocide in 1994 saw the slaughter of 800,000 in 100 days.[1] The global community’s inability to intervene sparked ‘soul searching’ within the international community.[2] The lack of efforts to step up and step in for countries and people facing humanitarian devastation led to the introduction of the R2P doctrine in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty – concerted effort to safeguard human rights through foreign intervention.[3] The R2P doctrine, as outlined in the UN Outcome Document of 2005,[4]consists of three  pillars:

  • The state carries the primary responsibility for protecting its populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing and their incitement;
  • The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist states in fulfilling their responsibility;
  • The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes.[5]


Case Study: Iraq Invasion 2003

The idea of the international community protecting one another through humanitarian crusades, out of altruism, is a warming idea.

But is this realistic?

In reality, the majority of interventions occur when it suits the intervening state, and with strategies in places that are influenced by their own interests. Intervention masked by R2P can be seen in events such as the Iraq invasion of 2003. The basis of intervention was ‘freedom’ – Former President George W. Bush stated that “the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power, as are 25 million people who now have the chance to live in freedom”.[6] However, it’s been posited that the basis of US intervention in Iraq was more than just achieving ‘humanitarian aid’ by liberating Iraqis from Saddam’s rule. A number of red flags arise when the invasion is justified purely by humanitarian justifications. Why would a foreign country altruistically aid another in peril?

Oil, exploitation of Iraq’s resources, retaliation after 9/11, and taking out a rival are more realistic explanations of why the USA and its allies invaded Iraq, without the United Nations Security Council’s approval. The question of whether the US and allies carried out a genuine humanitarian intervention influenced by the R2P principle will always be debated.


The Unknown Place of R2P

There are many complex theories and debates surrounding the R2P doctrine. Is R2P creating a new legal duty, calling on states in the international community to respond to humanitarian atrocities?

Peters writes that R2P has contributed to the evolution of a legal obligation on the UNSC and states to intervene for humanitarian purposes.[7] However, if it was an obligation there would be corresponding harsh legal sanctions for noncompliance, yet there is currently none.[8] Evidence would actually suggest that whilst R2P is a beautiful idea, arguably R2P is not a legal concept with corresponding legal duties for states. If anything, it is there for states to use as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to shift emphasis away from the unjustified intervention they are plotting for their own interests.


The Future of R2P

For R2P to be successful, the interveners must achieve short term and long term goals. The short term goal is to immediately alleviate human suffering and deliver aid to civilians. The long term goal is to focus on how far the intervention has addressed the root causes of human suffering, and implementing constructive state-building. These goals can only be achieved by an intervener whom is solely intervening for R2P purposes, otherwise the situation will end up much like Iraq and Libya. Most states are unwilling or unable (or a mixture of both) to achieve these short and long term goals, as it would be a drain on a states time and resources. The R2P doctrine requires a renewed focus on employing peaceful intervention at an early stage in a crisis, and to analyse the possible consequences of various courses of action before action actually occurs.

Jessica Bennett is a third year Political Science/International Relations & Law and Society student at The University of Western Australia. Her interests include coffee and International Relations.

[1] Bellamy, A. J. Responsibility To Protect (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 1.

[2] Nathan Beriro, Interview with Jennifer Welsh, UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect (20th Commemoration of the Rwanda Genocide, 15 April 2014).

[3] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, ‘The Responsibility to Protect  (Report, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, December 2001) 11-12.

[4]  Responsibility To Protect, 2005 World Summit Outcome (15 September 2005) < >.

[5] International Coalition for The Responsibility to Protect, An Introduction to the Responsibility to Protect,(30 April 2018) <>.

[6] Patrick Baert, ‘Bush defends legacy in new memoir’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online),10 November 2010 <>.

[7] Anne Peters, A,  ‘Humanity at the A and {OMEGA} of Sovereignty’, (2009) 20(3) European Journal of International Law 513, 540.

[8]  Carsten Stahn, ‘Responsibility to Protect: Political Rhetoric or Emerging Legal Norm?’ (2007) 101(1) American Journal of International Law 99, 109.

Image by Harland Quarrington/MOD, 2003 (Wikimedia Commons)