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How the Two Main Principles for Protecting Civilians Actually Work
Ramesh Thakur
10 December 2012
Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at Australia National University in Canberra. Hugh Breakey and Charles Sampford, from the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, contributed to this article.
A steady rise has been occurring in the last two centuries in the proportion of civilians killed in armed conflict, either from direct violence or conflict-related hunger and disease. The international community has responded to the calls to protect innocent victims by developing two parallel principles, the protection of civilians and the responsibility to protect.
Responsibility to protect (R2P) is an internationally agreed doctrine to protect populations from atrocities, set down at the 2005 World Summit and reaffirmed in later years in several United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Protection of civilians is based on international humanitarian law, stemming primarily from the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. Over the last few decades, this norm has developed robustly through the established practices, decisions and procedures of the UN Secretariat, the Security Council, peacekeepers and humanitarian agencies.
By contrast, as the Security Council-approved intervention last year in Libya showed, R2P remains a topic of debate and controversy. Because protection of civilians is markedly less contentious, its advocates and practitioners fear contagion from the more politicized R2P. Hence a need for a detailed and nuanced explanation as to how the two principles are alike and different.
On some points, the explanations are straightforward. While protection of civilians, for example, applies to discrete acts of violence against individuals, R2P has a much narrower scope, applying to mass-atrocity crimes only. While peacekeeping operations have an explicit focus on protecting civilians, they can also be important in R2P action. Atrocity crimes are often performed by rebel groups or state-sponsored militias, and peacekeepers can respond to both factions.
Contrary to common perception, however, protection of civilians is not restricted to armed conflict, as defined by international humanitarian law. (…)
Broad protection of civilians (…) is a policy framework used by UN and other peacekeepers, the Security Council, the UN Secretariat and humanitarian agencies. These protection players aim to contribute positively to the protection of civilians in situations of widespread, grave and lawless violence that have not reached the threshold of armed conflict. Syria in late 2011 was such a case, although it has tipped into full-fledged civil war.
Another common mistake is claiming that protection of civilians is a legal concept, while R2P is political. (…)
R2P and broad protection of civilians are both rooted in, but extend beyond, legal principles. The four R2P atrocity crimes — war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing — have legal definitions in the 1998 Rome Statute (which governs the International Criminal Court) and the 1948 Genocide Convention. (…)
Like R2P, broad protection of civilians draws on the law but extends beyond its strict requirements. The positive duties of peacekeepers to protect civilians are not dictated by international law. So, too, the Security Council has great discretion over the coercive measures it can take to protect civilians and the situations in which it may deploy troops. (…)
Moreover, it is mistakenly believed that protection of civilians, unlike R2P, is always impartial, neutral and apolitical. R2P is comparatively more sensitive, as the presence of atrocities implies a perpetrator that may need to be identified and confronted. (…)
Finally, many hold that peacekeepers, humanitarian and human-rights workers may perform specific atrocity-prevention efforts, but it is better not to refer to these as R2P activities. We agree that in some situations, needless controversy may arise by referring to atrocity prevention as R2P. The systematic avoidance, however, of R2P language by those engaged in protecting civilians would result in the doctrine referred to as military intervention only.
This stance would neglect efforts to rebuild a country’s institutions and provide international help to prevent atrocities. It would also produce a self-fulfilling collapse of R2P into coercive military intervention, ignoring its many major contributions to building a nation’s capacity to exercise its sovereignty with responsibility.


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