International community’s Responsibility to Protect starts when states fail to prevent atrocity crimes

The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) is the last available measure when a state fails to protect its population against extensive atrocity crimes. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, the RtoP is based on a political commitment to prevent genocides, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs publication Suomi ja suojeluvastuu – Viisitoista vuotta suojeluvastuuperiaatteen hyväksymisestä (Finland and the Responsibility to Protect: 15 years since adopting the principle of the Responsibility to Protect) is based on the policy adopted in 2016. As Finland’s national contact person in the global RtoP network, Ambassador Marja Lehto was responsible for the compilation of the publication.

Girls playing football in Somalia. Photo: Joonas Lehtipuu
Development cooperation, mediation and international crisis management are significant tools in preventive work. Photo: Joonas Lehtipuu

While the states bear the primary responsibility for protecting their populations the international community, however, is responsible for providing assistance and support to help realise the RtoP, when necessary. If a state clearly fails to protect its population, the international community must be prepared to take collective action in line with the UN Charter. In this case, the UN Security Council will decide on the matter.

Unfortunately, extensive atrocity crimes that include genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing did not only happen in the past. Atrocities against the civilian population have been reported, for example, in Syria, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Myanmar against the Rohingya people.

Tools of early warning have evolved

It is 15 years this autumn since the principles of the Responsibility to Protect were adopted at the UN Summit. During these years, the principles have evolved; the responsibility of the states themselves has been underscored and the tools of early warning have been honed.  For example, a deteriorating human rights situation may be a sign of a development that will lead to committing the most serious crimes.

Development cooperation, mediation and international crisis management are significant tools in preventive work.

The International Criminal Court combats impunity

The International Criminal Court (ICC) plays a key role in increasing responsibility for the very crimes that the RtoP aims at preventing.

“Although it is still more likely to be held accountable for murdering one person than for murdering hundreds or thousands of people, it is noteworthy that criminal liability may ultimately take place on the global level. The ICC is the most important international actor in efforts to abolish impunity. Many of the signatories to the ICC Statute have created national capabilities to initiate criminal processes, if necessary”, says Ambassador Lehto.

Finland promotes Responsibility to Protect

To promote the Responsibility to Protect is one of the priorities of Finland’s UN policies. In cases of preventing or combating mass atrocity crimes Finland supports efforts to limit the use of the right of veto.

Finland plays an active role in implementing the RtoP in the UN and the EU, for example, as well as in the global RtoP network.  In line with the 2016 policy setting, Finland underscores preventive measures to implement the RtoP, such as development policy and crisis management measures based on human rights.

“However, when we promote the RtoP the policy setting is not limited to foreign and security policy. It also addresses the work carried out nationally. Finland is not one of the high-risk countries when it comes to the RtoP, but it requires efforts both from the central government and NGOs to prevent social exclusion, support the status of minorities, prevent mounting confrontations in migration issues and combat violent radicalisation and extremism”, underlines Ambassador Lehto.

In addition to discussing the Responsibility to Protect principle as part of Finland’s policy, the new publication addresses the EU’s role in implementing the RtoP, human rights, mediation and development policy in support of the RtoP. It also addresses the question what Finland can do nationally to promote the RtoP principle. A number of authorities have contributed material to the publication.