The United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) is currently undertaking a project that examines the relationship between the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Protection of Civilians (PoC) in armed conflict situations. UNU-ISP co-organized and participated in three academic–practitioner workshops in 2011, held in Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Through dialogue and discussion, critical feedback was gathered to refine the handbook for protection actors. The handbook was presented to the UN Secretariat in New York last month, and further disseminated to policymakers and officials of member states.
Having coined the phrase Protection of Civilians, the Fourth Geneva Convention has become its firm international legal establishment. According to Dr. Vesselin Popovski of the UNU-ISP, after the world failed to protect the civilian Kosovo Albanians “from ethnic cleansing in 1998-99 — followed by controversial unauthorized military intervention by NATO in March 1999, an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was formed.” It was through an ICISS debate on humanitarian intervention that R2P was ultimately formulated and “became a worldwide shared emerging norm in 2005 when almost 150 world leaders — the biggest ever gathering of Heads of State in history — adopted the document “World Summit Outcome.”
PoC and R2P are alike in that they are both concerned with civilian suffering and mass human-induced violence. In order for the R2P threshold to be met, atrocity crimes–genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity–must be planned and systematic. PoC, on the other hand, is only applicable in situations of armed conflict. Dr. Popovski writes,
To summarize: in many situations, the two circles of R2P and POC can overlap — for example, when war crimes against civilians or crimes against humanity (including ethnic cleansing and genocide) are committed during armed conflict. A situation that would fall under POC, but not R2P, is the protection of civilians threatened by escalating armed conflict if mass atrocities are not planned and committed. And a situation that would trigger R2P, but not POC, is a threat from mass atrocities planned outside an armed conflict.
Moreover, situations may start out otherwise but later metastasize into an armed conflict, thus raising demands for PoC. To further differentiate the two concepts, R2P is a matter for States only, but PoC can be obligatory for non-State actors. As mentioned above, R2P and PoC share similar humanitarian concerns, “yet their specificity is important. R2P…does not undermine; rather, it serves as a catalyst for action — it can mobilize political will and complement the PoC agenda.”