Responsibility to Protect: Progress or Regression of Public International Law


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Can one justify a military intervention on humanitarian grounds? Theorists have repeatedly tried to offer a moral and legal legitimacy for interventions and meddling in the affairs of other states, all in the name of the protection of populations and human rights. From the nineteenth century’s “humanitarian intervention” to the 1990’s “right to interfere”, all these theories have come up against the same problem: the manipulation by the great powers of the time in function of their interests in order to interfere in the domestic affairs of the weakest states (or those considered “rogue” states).

Since the first decade of this century, we have been been witnessing a new attempt to justify interventions and meddling in the name of humanitarian concerns: this is what is now called “responsibility to protect”.Hailed by some as an advance in international public law, and even, sometimes, as the symbol of the coming of a new international order, the responsibility to protect has most notably been invoked in the decisions of the United Nations Security Council in the cases of Libya and Ivory Coast. By virtue of this theory, the first responsibility of the state is to protect its populations, but, when the state is unable to do so, it is incumbent on the international community to do so.

This new critical report of the CETIM examines critically the responsibility to protect and analyzes it in view of current geopolitical power plays. It presents in detail the main aspects of the concept of the responsibility to protect, the context of its elaboration, the arguments put forth in favor of it and the conditions of its implementation. The report demonstrates its relation to other theories that are now largely outmoded and discredited regarding humanitarian intervention. This report revisits the founding of the United Nations and recalls the importance of the principles contained in its Charter that guarantee equality among states and constitute a rampart against arbitrariness and the principle that might makes right. It criticizes the responsibility to protect as a new attempt to manipulate international law in a way that threatens the foundations of the international order and endangers peace and security throughout the world.


“Humanitarian assistance to victims of natural disasters and similar emergency situations”, GA Resolution 43/131, 8 December 1988 (PDF)

“Humanitarian assistance to victims of natural disasters and similar emergency situations”, GA Resolution 45/100, 14 December 1990 (PDF)

Security Council Resolution 1706, 31 August 2006 (Darfour) (PDF)

Security Council Resolution 1975, 30 March 2011 (Situation in Cote d’Ivoire) (PDF)

Security Council Resolution 2000, 27 July 2011 (Situation in Cote d’Ivoire) (PDF)

“Implementing the responsibility to protect”, Report of the U.N. Secretary-General B. Ki-Moon, 12 January 2009 (PDF)

International Court of Justice, “The Corfu Channel Case”, Judgment of April 9th, 1949 (PDF)

“Intervention humanitaire et intervention d’humanité : évolution ou mutation en Droit international ?” by Katia Boustany in Revue québécoise de droit international, vol. 8, 1, 1993-1994 (PDF, French only)

“Responsibility to protect: Introduction and implementation, distrust and misuse”, by Hans-Christof Von Sponeck in International, 1/2012 (PDF)

“Réflexions liminaires à propos des interventions humanitaires des Puissances européennes au XIXe siècle”, by Davide Rodogno in Relations internationales, 131, 3/2007 (French only)

“Responsibility to protect”, report of the ICISS, published by International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2011

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