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(p. vii) Preface

(p. vii) Preface

The modern United Nations system is built on a belief that the peoples of the earth share fundamental values and beliefs. The preamble to its Charter reads: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small … have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims’. Human rights are an expression of this global connectedness; they are rights that we hold by virtue of our common humanity. Yet the historical record shows that basic rights—such as the right not to be killed by arbitrary violence—have frequently been violated by states and other armed groups. Since 1945, international society has reputedly resolved to find ways to prevent and respond to genocide and other atrocity crimes. If we do not, then innocents abroad ‘must face their own particular terrors without any protection from the rest of us’.1

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is intended to provide an effective framework for responding to such crimes. R2P holds that states have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity (hereafter referred to collectively as ‘atrocity crimes’), should encourage and assist others to do so, and should take collective action through the UN and regional organizations to protect populations from these crimes.

It is a myth to think that the idea of taking action to ‘save strangers’ in foreign lands from the worst kinds of tyranny was invented in the 1990s; indeed, as the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius pointed out in the early seventeenth century, humanitarian intervention was a right that was claimed by sovereigns at the beginning of the Westphalian system. What happened in the 1990s, however, was significant in a different respect: despite the evolution of international laws and norms prohibiting atrocity crimes and providing for the protection of civilian populations it became apparent in the killing fields of Rwanda and Bosnia that international society had not developed the will to do what was necessary or effective sets of capacities, rules, and decision-making procedures for living up to the promise of human protection. At the largest ever gathering in Heads of State and Government in 2005, the R2P framework was adopted as international society’s principal response to this problem. Subsequently, over the last decade, R2P has evolved in multiple ways: as a framework for guiding states and intergovernmental organizations in their response to atrocity crimes; as a moral principle which is widely shared among states, non-state actors, and peoples; as a rallying cry for civil society actors to mobilize political action where the risk of atrocities (or their escalation) has been identified; and as an object of derision on the part of some critical theorists. While Thomas Weiss is (p. viii) right to argue that few ideas have travelled further, or faster, than R2P, it should also be noted that not everyone has been travelling in the same direction. Interestingly, criticism of R2P’s relevance and effectiveness has evolved in line with its growing incorporation into international practices. As Edward Luck quipped, this might lead us to the judgement that R2P is a principle that works in practice but not in theory.

Whatever one thinks of the merits of R2P, it must be recognized that the principle has been increasingly incorporated into practice by international society. At the time of writing, the UN Security Council had referred to R2P in some 37 resolutions, including thematic resolutions that reaffirmed the Council’s commitment and substantive resolutions adopted in response to crises in Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The General Assembly, which comprises the whole UN membership, has referred to R2P in three resolutions, one committing itself to ongoing consideration of its implementation and one each on the situations in Syria and North Korea. For its part, the UN’s Human Rights Council had adopted 13 resolutions, relating mainly to the crises in Libya, North Korea, and Syria. Beyond the UN, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a resolution in 2007 on ‘Strengthening the Responsibility to Protect in Africa’ and in 2013 the European Parliament recommended R2P to the European Council. Whilst the proliferation of resolutions is not in itself a measure of R2P’s effectiveness—that hinges on its capacity to support the protection of populations from atrocity crimes—it does indicate that R2P has emerged as an accepted norm—the standard by which we judge international society’s performance and, more importantly, the standard by which international society and individual states judge their own performance.

The growth in the practice of R2P is reflected in the growth of academic interest in the topic. There are today a number of research centres dedicated to developing human protection from atrocities, including the Global Centre for R2P in New York, the Asia Pacific Centre in Brisbane/Australia, European centres in Budapest, and an emerging one in Leeds. There is a journal dedicated to the principle, Global Responsibility to Protect, and a proliferation of academic courses that either have R2P as their main focus or that incorporate it into existing courses. Academic publishing has mirrored the development of the R2P framework. Since 2003, 339 outputs have appeared with R2P in the title or in the abstract. Predictably, this totality masks over a great deal of diversity: there are books and articles on R2P examining history, law, and practice; there are books and articles that examine UN decisions and missions; there are books and articles that look at cases and crises. But no publication hitherto has been as comprehensive as this Handbook. With this proliferation has come a proliferation of perspectives and readers will detect in these pages the presence of critical perspectives alongside those of advocates and those of writers who prefer not to position themselves directly in these debates. Hence the reader will encounter significant critiques of R2P in many of the chapters that have a country or a regional focus.

We begin the Handbook with ‘History’—where else is there to start? The literature on R2P has tended to over-emphasize the recent history of sovereignty as responsibility: yet (p. ix) we know that, for many centuries, statecraft has been influenced by ideas of protecting non-citizens from actual or potential harm. The Handbook then moves on to consider ‘Theory’ and how R2P touches directly or indirectly on a series of profound theoretical questions; conceptual and normative questions about who has a duty to protect, how this should be exercised, and why. Clarity about how the distribution of responsibilities should be shared in international society remains a prescient dilemma. This leads logically to a consideration of agency in the section on the ‘UN Order’; the volume then considers ‘Global Perspectives’ on R2P, which precedes an analysis of the ‘Cross-Cutting Themes’. In-depth understandings of ‘Cases’ matter greatly, hence the inclusion of 12 case studies across three regions. The Handbook concludes with five forward-looking essays offering informed analysis about the next ten years; three of these concluding chapters have been written by former Foreign Ministers of influential countries, one by a leading scholar-practitioner, Jennifer Welsh, who currently serves the Special Adviser on R2P to the UN Secretary-General, and one by a leading expert on a region that remains under-studied in this context. It is a truism of most academic fields of study that ‘there is always more to be said’. But at the end of editing 53 chapters, by outstanding scholars and practitioners, we think we have said enough.

As much as we think this is a comprehensive study of the subject, we are all too aware that research on R2P can and must continue to thrive. There is of course the dismal prospect—or should we say certainty—that there will be further atrocity crimes in the future which will be in places, and take forms, that we have not anticipated. We sincerely hope that greater shared understanding about R2P—by diplomats, scholars, and activists—will make a difference to anticipating future crises and calibrating how best to respond.

Before closing out this Preface we would like to add a note on terminology. As we observed earlier, R2P relates to four crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Contributors use a variety of different shorthands for these four crimes, most commonly ‘genocide and mass atrocities’ and ‘atrocity crimes’. Unless otherwise stated, these terms relate to the four crimes identified in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the World Summit Outcome Document.

All that remains is to warmly thank our contributors, our colleagues at The University of Queensland, and our editor at OUP Dominic Byatt who provided encouragement and advice in equal measure. We also acknowledge the excellent editorial work done by Jo North.

Two research assistants deserve a mention: Kimberly Nackers who helped a great deal while undertaking her post-doc in the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P; and Joseph Hongoh from the School of Political Science and International Studies at The University of Queensland, who compiled the consolidated bibliography.

Finally, we would like to thank both the Australian Government and The University of Queensland for co-funding the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and enabling this project to happen (Agreement 63684). Alex was the Centre’s founding Director, Tim was Director from 2010–14, and then Alex returned to lead the (p. x) Centre in 2014. Throughout this time, the Centre has been wholeheartedly supported by the School of Political Science at The University of Queensland—thank you to the current and past Heads whose terms of office have presided over the Centre’s three phases: Stephen Bell, Gillian Whitehouse, and Richard Devetak.

Alex J. Bellamy and Tim Dunne

The University of Queensland



(1.) Henry Shue, ‘Limiting Sovereignty’, in Jennifer M. Welsh (ed.), Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 21.


(1.) Henry Shue, ‘Limiting Sovereignty’, in Jennifer M. Welsh (ed.), Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 21.