The UK's Responsibility to Protect: Practice versus Aspiration

Syria had become ‘the biggest peace and security [challenge] in the world’[1]. The crisis began in March 2011 and to date it is estimated that over 400,000 have died, while over 11 million people—more than half of Syria’s total population—have been displaced either within Syria or abroad.[2] As the conflict and humanitarian crisis continues, the international community’s failure to effectively respond has fuelled arguments that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)[3] populations from mass atrocities in foreign territories is nothing more than a ‘hollow norm’ after the ‘sound and fury’, but ‘signifying nothing’.[4] However, R2P is not in and of itself a hollow norm but rather is understood and practised in many different ways across states. This is mainly because the norm is broad and ambiguous, which naturally permits deference to the political will and national interests of states, and which may result in ineffective global responses to cases like Syria.

This blog post is based on broader PhD research, which examined the UK’s commitment to, and understanding of R2P in the context of Syrian refugees fleeing mass atrocities. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it is important to look at how powerful states like the UK interpret and practice R2P. This post addresses to what extent the UK has fulfilled its R2P, as promised in 2005, in light of the ongoing mass atrocities in Syria and what has been perceived as the international community’s failure to respond effectively.[5] First, R2P is defined and its requirements are analysed in order to separate the norm’s practical requirements from its aspirational goals. Then, R2P is discussed in the UK policy context. As this piece consistently highlights how the UK’s objectives in Syria have helped undermine the protection of Syrians, the conclusion follows with some policy recommendations.

What is R2P?

Following the United Nations General Assembly in 1999 and in 2000, Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleaded with the international community to develop an approach to balancing issues of sovereignty with preventing gross and systematic violations of human rights, considering the experiences of Rwanda and Srebrenica, that affect every ‘precept of our common humanity’.[6] After 6 years of debate, in 2005, all UN Member states endorsed the R2P norm, having reached agreement that the ‘international community, through the United Nations, has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the UN Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’.[7] Under R2P, member states also agreed that they ‘are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organisations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’.[8]

The 2009 Secretary General’s Report describes a three-pillar approach to implementation of R2P. Pillar I affirms a state’s responsibility to protect its own population from mass atrocities; Pillar II concerns international assistance and capacity-building to states in order to help them maintain their Pillar I responsibilities; and, Pillar III encourages the timely and decisive response from the international community where a state is manifestly failing its Pillar I duties.[9] This research is narrowly focused on R2P’s most controversial aspect in terms of the international community’s response under Pillar III.

What does R2P Require?

Confusion persists as to what an R2P response entails. In reality, R2P was designed to demand very little in terms of the international community’s response to mass atrocities in exchange for wide consensus.[10] The obligation defined in paragraph 139 is to ‘help protect populations from mass atrocities’ which is highly subjective and ambiguous. Arguments that member states are required to do whatever it takes to save populations from mass atrocity are compelling[11] but rely on a much broader interpretation of R2P obligations than is found in the text. The presumption that R2P requires ending mass atrocities or saving populations from mass atrocities manifests from the spirit underlying the R2P norm, and not from the text itself.[12] The language of R2P, as endorsed by states, permits a subjective (due to ambiguity) and minimal (helping to protect, not protecting) response to those facing mass atrocities; states are not politically or legally required to act beyond the text they endorsed. Interpreting R2P narrowly as a response that ‘helps to protect populations from mass atrocity’, a different obligation from ‘ending the mass atrocity’, is defensible. Former Special Advisor on R2P, Jennifer Welsh, argues that ‘R2P is best conceived as a responsibility to consider a real or imminent crisis involving mass atrocity crimes’.[13] The PhD research revealed that Welsh’s ‘duty to consider’ is the baseline from which to begin because R2P also requires that states actually ‘use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means’.[14] This means the UK has a ‘duty to consider’ a case and then must respond through one of these peaceful methods, but the responses need only help protect populations from mass atrocities, which requires a minimal effort as compared to ending the mass atrocities. The duty to respond under Chapter VII is even less binding than the non-coercive measures, as states agreed they ‘are prepared to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner’.[15] Advocates can certainly urge for a broader interpretation of state responsibilities under R2P from moral imperatives and perhaps even from political necessity, but a state cannot be said to be failing its responsibility to protect when mass atrocities persist despite implementation of responses that help to protect but fall short of ending the mass atrocities.[16]

The UK’s Responses to Syria are R2P in Action

There is a persistent notion that R2P constrains the development and realisation of foreign policy objectives[17], and particularly, that R2P implementation means engaging in a Libya-style military intervention.[18] For this reason, high-level officials are careful not to connect R2P to humanitarian assistance on the international level in order to avoid a Russian and Chinese veto over fears of leaving room for a robust military response.[19] This notion has also led to a rebranding of the ‘responsibility to protect populations’ to a ‘responsibility to protect civilians’ as a way to distance policies from R2P’s controversial military aspect.[20] The problem is that R2P is too often conflated with military intervention, which makes officials wary of linking any response to R2P.[21] R2P is then relegated to its prevention box under Pillars I and II.[22] As a result, the UK’s commitment to R2P appears rhetorical rather than operational because, in the absence of authorisation for military intervention, it looks as if the UK is not responding to Syria within the context of R2P.

However, the UK is currently implementing R2P through various cross-government responses, including diplomacy at the international level and humanitarian assistance in the region through DFID. In reality, R2P requires a response that does little more than help protect, so it is powerless to constrain foreign policy or pre-determine the particular responses to cases of mass atrocities. Indeed, any response that can be said to help protect populations from mass atrocities is R2P in practice. Even so, the UK has not linked R2P to its other humanitarian policies on Syria,[23] particularly the Home Office’s Syrian Resettlement Scheme, which is certainly a policy that is helping to protect Syrians from mass atrocities. Linking this programme to R2P would help build the norm and would demonstrate how the UK is practising R2P in other non-coercive ways. This would signal to those wary of R2P as a military intervention tool that the UK implements R2P in non-coercive ways and does not conflate the norm with military intervention.

Instead, the UK may be Failing the Aspirations of R2P

The UK is implementing R2P as endorsed in 2005. The issue is that practising all these R2P responses has not ended the mass atrocities in Syria. Thus, if the UK wants an end to the humanitarian suffering in Syria and the region, then it must take steps towards reaching R2P’s aspirational ends. Importantly, it is not implementation of R2P that is preventing realisation of the norm’s aspirations. Instead, it is a lack of diligence in finding consensus at the UN Security Council. Linking R2P to humanitarian aid is not what is causing a Russian veto on the humanitarian access resolutions on Syria;[24] it is the linking of political transition to humanitarian access along with the shadows cast by the Libya intervention that have caused non-consensus.[25] The UK’s objectives in Syria have been: (1) Assad stepping down; (2) political transition; and (3) ending the humanitarian suffering.[26] The UK has continued to pursue the first and second objectives despite a divided UN Security Council and a domestic public wary of another military intervention, which means there is no possibility of reaching the desired humanitarian ends through these means (Assad’s departure and political transition). In effect, the UK’s continued pursuit of the first two objectives for reaching humanitarian ends has sacrificed the humanitarian objectives in both the short term and the long term.

Rather than explore more pragmatic routes to reach its humanitarian objectives, the UK still envisions a military response as the best means and has recently argued that military intervention is still legal and legitimate under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.[27] However, the legitimacy of a military intervention in Syria is seriously tenuous, as a coalition of the P3 (France, the UK and the US) engaging in military action fails to demonstrate that the broader international community is convinced of the need for the use of force in Syria.[28] Furthermore, given the political fall-out after the Libya intervention, such action by the P3 would exacerbate the non-consensus at the UN Security Council in this and future cases. Critically, in terms of ending the humanitarian crisis, it is impossible to say that all peaceful options have been exhausted, to necessitate the unilateral use of force, which remains illegal under international law. Pursuing the Uniting for Peace initiative, as argued by Adrian Gallagher, is one way for the UK to lead in obtaining multilateralism for attaining R2P’s aspirational ends.[29] Even so, there is no evidence that the domestic public desires another military intervention as Parliament has not voted to intervene in Syria beyond air strikes on ISIS. The strongest course of action would be for the UK to prioritise the humanitarian objectives in Syria and pursue means of reaching those goals in a manner that is actually possible and more effective for responding to the humanitarian crisis in and around Syria.


The UK has not failed its responsibilities under R2P because the Pillar III prescription to help protect populations is minimal and subjective; virtually any response that can be said to help protect populations from mass atrocities suffices as implementation of R2P. The fears around linking R2P to government policies on Syria stem from misconceptions around what R2P requires and what R2P responses should look like. The UK’s policies on Syria, including humanitarian assistance, Syrian resettlement, and diplomacy all fit within the remit of R2P responses. R2P does not require a particular response but allows any response that helps to protect populations from mass atrocities.

Thus, the R2P norm as endorsed does not require ending mass atrocities. Rather, resolving conflicts and ending human suffering comprise its underlying aspirations, which will be left to the political will of the state to pursue. However, the means used, such as unauthorised military force for laudable ends, may give rise to additional responsibilities[30] and may threaten the international system by legitimising other states’ determinations that their use of force is not only permitted, but at times required. A stronger path for the UK is to lead in either adjusting the hierarchy of its desired ends in Syria – favouring peace over political transition – in pursuit of consensus at the UN Security Council, or by changing its means of evolving laws and norms from a P3 coalition, as described by Gallagher, to a genuinely multilateral coalition through the UN General Assembly via the Uniting for Peace initiative.


  • The UK is meeting its R2P through diplomacy efforts at the UN Security Council, humanitarian assistance in Syria and the surrounding region through DFID, and via its Syrian resettlement programme at the Home Office. As such, the UK should explicitly link all domestic policies that help to protect Syrians from mass atrocities to R2P in order to operationalise its rhetorical commitment. Consolidating all of the UK’s responses to Syria under R2P requires a minimal policy shift, and benefits the UK by showing that states can practice the norm without default military intervention, mollifying less powerful states’ concerns and building further consensus around the norm, which continues to be an objective of the UK. Operationalising R2P non-coercively may reduce disagreement at the UN Security Council over time as Russia and China may be less likely to veto humanitarian resolutions that connect to R2P if there is practical evidence that R2P does not by default result in military intervention or regime change.[31]
  • The UK is failing to fulfil R2P’s aspirational objectives, namely ending the mass atrocities in Syria. In order to strive towards R2P’s aspirational ends, the UK must investigate additional non-coercive options that as yet have not been exhausted as required under R2P. For example, the UK could seek multilateral support for its objectives of Assad’s departure and political transition through the Uniting for Peace initiative in the UN General Assembly, as described by Gallagher. Better yet, the UK could potentially find consensus in the UN Security Council by adjusting its political objectives in Syria (Assad’s departure and political transition) and put the humanitarian needs of the population before its political objectives. This would build consensus for responding to future cases of mass atrocities, including those which are now happening or rapidly developing as we speak.


[1] Ban Ki-moon, Address to the General Assembly, 24 September 2013,, accessed 3 June 2018; see also, Aidan Hehir, ‘Assessing the Influence of the Responsibility to Protect on the UN Security Council during the Arab Spring’, Cooperation and Conflict 51/2: 166-183, 176 (2016).

[2] ‘Country Summary, Syria’, Human Rights Watch,, accessed 3 June 2018.

[3] ‘2005 World Summit Outcome’, UNGA Res. 60/1, 16 September 2005, paras. 138, 139.

[4] Aidan Hehir, Hollow Norms and the Responsibility to Protect (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); Aidan Hehir, The Responsibility to Protect: Rhetoric, Reality and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[5] This blog post also draws on ‘Written Evidence from Chloë M Gilgan (RTP0011)’, Responsibility to protect and humanitarian intervention inquiry – publications, Foreign Affairs Committee, 4 July 2018, available at

[6] Kofi Annan, ‘Secretary-General Presents his Annual Report to General Assembly’, SG/SM/7136 GA/9596, 20 September 1999,, accessed 5 July 2018.

[7] ‘2005 World Summit Outcome’, UNGA Res. 60/1, 16 September 2005, paras. 138, 139.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ban Ki-Moon, Report of the Secretary-General, Implementing the responsibility to protect, A/63/677, 12 January 2009.

[10] Alex J. Bellamy, The Responsibility to Protect: A Defense, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[11] Alex J. Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the ‘Migrant Crisis’’,, 2 April 2016, accessed 27 April 2016.

[12] Chloë M. Gilgan, ‘Exploring the Link Between R2P and Refugee Protection: Arriving at Resettlement’,

            Global Responsibility to Protect Journal, 9/4: 366-394 (2017).

[13] Jennifer M. Welsh, ‘Norm Contestation and the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 5: 365-396 (2013).

[14] ‘2005 World Summit Outcome’, UNGA Res. 60/1, 16 September 2005, para. 139.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Chloë M. Gilgan, ‘Exploring the Link Between R2P and Refugee Protection: Arriving at Resettlement’,

            Global Responsibility to Protect Journal, 9/4: 366-394 (2017).

[17] Based on interviews in the FCO.

[18] As the Benghazi massacre in Libya became imminent, the UN Security Council quickly and efficiently authorised the use of non-consensual force against Libya in Resolution 1973 (2011). States were united in their concern to protect Libyan civilians from mass atrocities and even Russia and China, states opposed to non-consensual military intervention, abstained from voting so as not to obstruct the R2P mission in Libya. However, the resulting regime change in Libya confirmed many states’ fears that R2P would be misused to serve the interests of western states historically predisposed to the use of military might. As a result, states like Russia and China became wary of any measures linked to R2P in the Syrian case. R2P’s mission creep in Libya, the failure to exhaust all the political avenues put forward by regional organisations like the AU such as potential ceasefire offers, the attacks on non-military targets, the violation of explicit arms embargoes, and the ensuing violence and refugee crisis resulting from the intervention give weight to the argument that the use of force in Libya, while a successful moment of R2P unity, has at the very least, prevented effective protection of the Syrian population from mass atrocities and has reinforced on-going contestation against the use of force and regime change for humanitarian responses. For more information on the Libya intervention, see Alex J. Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the Problem of Regime Change’, e-International Relations, 27 September 2011; Tim Dunne, ‘R2P, Libya and the Myth of Regime Change’, The Interpreter, 5 September 2012; Dirk Vandenwalle, ‘Saving Libya, Again’, New York Times, 11 November 2014,; Aidan Hehir. ‘Assessing the Influence of the Responsibility to Protect on the UN Security Council during the Arab Spring’, Cooperation and Conflict 51/2: 166-183, 171-172 (2016).

[19] Permanent Secretary at DFID, Michael Rycroft, Maintaining Momentum in a Changing World: Atrocity Prevention in UK Policy, Conference at Chatham House, 20 February 2018.

[20] Based on field research.

[21] See for example, ‘UK Fully Committed to Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’, FCO Speech by Deputy Permanent Representative Peter Wilson, 11 September 2013,, accessed 6 March 2018; FCO Letter to UNA-UK from the Multilateral Policy Directorate, 17 June 2014,, accessed 6 March 2018. For a discussion of Pillar II, see Ban Ki-moon, Report of the Secretary-General - Fulfilling our collective responsibility: international assistance and the responsibility to protect, A/68/947, 11 July 2014; see also, Adrian Gallagher, ‘The Promise of Pillar II: Analysing International Assistance Under the Responsibility to Protect', International Affairs 91/6: 1259-1275 (2015).

[22] Pillar I affirms a state’s responsibility to protect its own population from these crimes and Pillar II concernsinternational assistance and capacity-building to states in order to help them maintain their Pillar I responsibilities. Ban Ki-Moon, Report of the Secretary-General, Implementing the responsibility to protect, A/63/677, 12 January 2009.

[23]                    Based on field research including document analysis and interviews in Parliament, Home Office and FCO.

[24] As suggested by Permanent Secretary at DFID, Michael Rycroft, How to Prevent Mass Atrocities, Chatham House, 20 February 2018.

[25] Jason Ralph and Jess Gifkins, ‘The Purpose of United Nations Security Council Practice: Contesting Competence Claims in the Normative Context Created by the Responsibility to Protect’, European Journal of International Relations, 23/3: 630–653 (2017); Jason Ralph, ‘What Should Be Done? Pragmatic Constructivist Ethics and the Responsibility to Protect’, International Organization 72/1: 173-203 (Winter 2018), online (2017) at doi: 10.1017/S0020818317000455, accessed 23 January 2018.

[26] Based on an official discourse analysis and elite interviews for the PhD research.

[27] ‘Syria action – UK government legal position’, Prime Minister’s Office, Policy Paper, 14 April 2018,, accessed 15 April 2018.

[28] Blair’s doctrine was criticised because it did not contain an important sixth condition that had been noted after the Kosovo crisis by Andrew Linklater, which would require other states to be convinced of the case for using force. See, Jason Ralph, ‘After Chilcot: The “Doctrine of International Community” and the UK Decision to Invade Iraq’, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 13: 304-325, 307 (2011).

[29] See, Adrian Gallagher and Jason Ralph, ‘Syria: Can legitimacy for intervention be found in a Uniting for Peace Resolution?’ POLIS, University of Leeds, 5 September 2013,, accessed 20 June 2018.

[30] For example, James Souter argues that special responsibilities arise due to the external causes of displacement—military interventions, support for oppressive regimes, or the result of economic policies—which requires asylum as reparation. James Souter, ‘Bringing Human Rights Home: Refugees, Reparation, and the Responsibility to Protect’, in Lennox, C. (ed.) Contemporary Challenges in Securing Human Rights, (London, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 2015), p.33,, accessed 26 April 2016; James Souter, ‘Towards a Theory of Asylum as Reparation for Past Injustice’, Political Studies, 62: 326–342 (2014). However, this special responsibility to protect only applies in contexts where a potential causative link exists between intervention and displacement. In those cases where there is no link between intervention and displacement, the argument that R2P responsibilities apply outside the manifestly failing state are more tenuous. See, Chloë M. Gilgan, ‘Exploring the Link Between R2P and Refugee Protection: Arriving at Resettlement’,

            Global Responsibility to Protect Journal, 9/4: 366-394 (2017).

[31] For example, at a public event at Chatham House, former UN Permanent Member for the UK diplomatic team in New York, Matthew Rycroft made clear that the P2 and the BRICS more generally hear ‘intervention’ when R2P is mentioned even in the context of mass atrocity prevention at the UN Security Council and for this reason the UK delegates avoid using the norm by name.