Prof. Jennifer Welsh (Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect) and Dr. Gilles Giacca (former postodoctoral fellow and research coordinator on the programme) conducted research on the relationship between "Responsibility to Protect" and human rights.

At the 2005 World Summit marking the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, heads of state and government endorsed in their Outcome Document the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (also known as RtoP) as a new principle of international conduct. The three pillars of the responsibility to protect, as stipulated in the Outcome Document and formulated in the Secretary-General’s 2009 Report on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect are:

  • Pillar I: Individual States carry the primary responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity (atrocity crimes) in accordance with their national and international obligations.
  • Pillar II: The international community has a parallel responsibility to encourage and assist States to fulfil their responsibility
  • Pillar III: If a State is manifestly failing to protect its population, the international community must be prepared to take collective action, using appropriate diplomatic, political, humanitarian and – if necessary – military means, to protect populations from these crimes, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

At its heart the principle of RtoP is designed to support States in the fulfilment of their sovereign responsibilities to protect their own populations. However, given that the acts associated with RtoP form part of the category of ‘international crimes’, a distinct category of crime deemed to threaten values vital to the international community as a whole, there is also a collective responsibility for protection

In light of this, some of the questions to be examined are: How can prevention of atrocity crimes be further strengthened through respect for human rights? What are the obstacles to prevention of atrocity crimes? What could the international community and states do better to ensure that violations do not remain unpunished and do not recur? How can existing human rights mechanisms strengthen prevention for atrocity crimes? How to improve the coherence between different mechanisms to strengthen prevention?

In March 2014, the HRFG hosted a High-level experts meeting with the Special Adviser. The meeting involved approximately 22 participants, including prominent legal specialists and scholars, and senior representatives from the OHCHR, Non-Governmental Organizations, and the ICRC.

Chaired by Dr Gilles Giacca, the experts meeting was designed to provide guidance and input for the United Nations Secretary-General’s annual report on the Responsibility to Protect, which in 2014 will focus on Pillar II: assisting states to fulfill their responsibility to protect. As noted in the Secretary General’s 2009 report on Responsibility to Protect, there are a variety of ways in which the international community can encourage and help states to exercise their responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The experts convened in Geneva specified further how these various instruments and approaches could further the goal of preventing or responding to atrocity crimes - or their escalation - as well as reflect more generally on the relationship between human rights violations and such crimes. Participants also indicated where and how the agenda for atrocity response and prevention could be integrated into the existing work of human rights instruments and institutions.

Background paper by Dr Gilles Giacca