The Harvard Human Rights Journal brought leading scholars and practitioners to campus on February 20 for a symposium on the doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Commissioner Ramesh Thakur discussed the history of R2P. The ICISS, created in 2000, is an independently-funded international organization committed to reconciling the international community’s responsibility to respond to human rights violations with the sovereign rights of nations in which violations occur. In 2001, the commission issued a report setting forth the major elements of the R2P doctrine.

Thakur, one of the lead authors of that report, explained that R2P was developed as a way of “reformulating humanitarian intervention as responsibility and as responsibility to protect.”

The R2P doctrine calls for intervention by the UN whenever governments or armed groups are committing “atrocity crimes”—genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. “In this globalized world we cannot turn our eyes away, we cannot avert our gaze,” Thakur said. “Sovereignty is not, never was, and never was meant to be a shield behind which killers could commit atrocities.”

Dr. Edward C. Luck, Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General and Senior Vice President and Director of Studies at the International Peace Institute, delivered the symposium’s keynote address.

He described the evolution of R2P in the U.N., and his own efforts to increase support for R2P among member nations. “Many of the member states were uncomfortable with the ICISS report,” he explained, because the report had put what some viewed as undue emphasis on the use of force. “We had to restart the enterprise and restart the debate,” he said.

Luck described his work in developing The Report of the Secretary-General “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect,” which was released on January 12, 2009.

The Report proposed “three pillars” of R2P—states’ obligation to protect populations from the four “atrocity crimes,” the responsibility of interveners to provide “assistance and support” to nations recovering from atrocity crimes, and the responsibility to respond, either militarily or by other means.

He also emphasized the importance of early intervention in conflicts where atrocity crimes are being incited, threatened, or committed. “The one thing we will be asking for [from the U.N. General Assembly] is a boost,” he said, in developing early warning and preventive activities. “You have to see the patterns that are emerging in these places.” He pointed to Kenya as an example of where development and peace-building activities were successful, stating that “Those parts of Kenya which had [conflict resolution and mediation] didn’t go up in flames,” following a crisis and related atrocity crimes.