Global perspective Human stories

Rule of law key to implementing responsibility to protect principle, says UN official

Patricia O'Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs.
UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
Patricia O'Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs.

Rule of law key to implementing responsibility to protect principle, says UN official

The rule of law is key to the implementation of the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle, often referred to as R2P, and the prevention of atrocities, a United Nations senior legal official stressed today.

“R2P represents an important commitment by the international community to protect populations from egregious crimes,” the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Patricia O’Brien, said at a roundtable discussion on the R2P concept at the 55th annual meeting of the Russian Association of International Law in Moscow.

“The international community has a responsibility to help States meet those obligations, or to step in when States manifestly fail to do so […] These obligations are anchored in international law, and reflect obligations of humanity,” she added.

The UN’s top lawyer emphasized that international law is crucial to uphold the three pillars of R2P. Pillar I is the enduring responsibility of States to protect their populations; Pillar II is the role of the international community to assist States to protect their populations before conflicts escalate; and Pillar III involves a commitment in which States are prepared to take collective action through the Security Council when national authorities are “manifestly failing to protect their populations.”

Ms. O’Brien underscored that the international community, through regional organizations and the UN, can assist States to build rule of law capacities that will make them less susceptible to R2P situations, including technical assistance, engagement on human rights, peacekeeping and peacebuilding projects.

“International assistance serves to reinforce and not to undermine national sovereignty while helping governments to provide additional protection and security to their populations,” Ms. O’Brien said.

She noted that laws such as those dealing with international humanitarian activities, refugees and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (ICC) will provide the necessary structures to prevent large scale atrocities within a country’s territory.

In her remarks, Ms. O’Brien also touched upon several cases where the R2P principle has been invoked. These included Libya, and more recently Syria, where she said that despite measures taken to enforce Pillar II and III, violence has not ceased.

“The challenge for the international community is to find ways to prevent further escalation of the conflict,” Ms. O’Brien said. “R2P’s contribution is to continue to underscore the responsibilities of States vis-à-vis their populations, and to pressure and motivate the international community to help State meet those obligations.”

“To a very large extent, the Syrian authorities have disregarded their responsibilities,” she added. “However, the international community is focused and motivated, and, while much remains to be done, the doctrine of R2P is very much engaged.”