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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.
Responsibilty to protect from pandemics

29 March 2020

Starting a conversation…

Thomas PeakResearch Associate, Centre for Geopolitics

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is the international political commitment to end mass atrocities. Unanimously adopted by the 2005 World Summit, it reflects a compromise agreement – and after the original effort to address massive human rights violations was circumscribed – it is concerned with four specific crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.  The effect of this narrowed definition was felt in 2008 when the government of Myanmar refused access to international humanitarian relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis, despite 130,000 deaths.

Today the world is facing an unprecedented challenge.  Is it time to revisit the consensus around R2P?

Prevention is R2P’s core mission, but its existing formulation is not fit for purpose.  Forecasters expect CORVID-19 to kill millions.  And the outlook is especially dire for the 70 million people in refugee and displaced person camps.  When the virus reaches them, there is likely to be avoidable ‘large scale loss of life’ caused largely by state neglect.

To fulfill its mission, do we need an expanded R2P?



The longer term risk is that COVID-19 creates or accelerates structural risk factors which lead to genocide and other mass atrocities, namely weakening of state structures, abandoning of multilateralism, social and economic stress fractures and restriction of access to populations at risk for UN and international NGO personnel. International institutions have failed to deal with even isolated catastrophes; what is to happen when these erupt simultaneously across regions, with the ‘great powers’ themselves hamstrung and distracted by the virus at home? 

Do we now need to reassess a ‘failing norm‘?  To fulfill its mission, do we need an expanded R2P?  Does this ask for a rethinking of sovereignty norms similar to that which happened around the turn of the millennium and culminated in R2P, and might the crisis call for international oversight over internal public health standards and reporting mechanisms? 

And how can R2P be adapted to respond to closed totalitarian states, whose oppressive domestic governance structures, aside from the four crimes, none the less threaten the right to life of peoples around the globe?



Simon Adams, Executive Director, Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect

Although COVID-19 is a truly global threat, the suffering caused by the pandemic will not be borne equally. Around the world there are currently more than 70 million people forcibly displaced by conflict, persecution and atrocities, many of whom live in conditions that leave them dangerously exposed. For example, medical equipment, protective clothing and health personnel are already in scarce supply in underdeveloped countries that are hosting the majority of the world’s 25 million refugees. Countries like Bangladesh, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey simply do not have the capacity to withstand the sort of medical emergency currently engulfing Spain, Italy or New York City.

Overcrowded refugee and internal displacement camps are especially conducive to the rapid spread of infectious diseases, with little possibility to self-quarantine or practice social distancing. More than 900,000 Rohingya refugees and genocide survivors now live in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where there are no intensive care facilities. Similarly in northwest Syria, where a military offensive by government forces has displaced more than 1 million people, there are only 153 ventilators and 148 ICU beds. Meanwhile in Burkina Faso, which already has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in West Africa, attacks by armed groups have displaced more than 700,000 people over the past year and forced the closure of more than 135 health centers. The result is that as Burkina Faso faces a debilitating wave of COVID-19 infections, more than 1.6 million people are living in areas that have almost no medical facilities.

As COVID-19 continues to spread, the threat it presents will continue to evolve. In particular, opportunistic demagogues and other malignant political forces will seek to weaponize the pandemic. In divided and fragile societies already suffering from identity-based conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic could therefore significantly increase risk factors leading to mass atrocity crimes – crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide.

Fears regarding the pandemic have already resulted in increased xenophobia and hate speech directed at minority populations – Chinese in the United States, Roma in parts of Europe, and so on. In Hungary, the Philippines and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders are taking advantage of the pandemic to bolster their power and weaken human rights protections. These trends may increase as the pandemic continues.

The virus does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender or identity, and it does not respect passports and borders. It is, therefore, up to all governments and to international civil society to actively prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from being used to stigmatize, marginalize, and persecute others.

Overall, we don’t need new global norms to confront the pandemic. What we need is the consistent application of the norms, principles and international laws that we already have. Now more than ever, it is essential that the entire global community respond to COVID-19 in ways that defend universal human rights, emphasize human solidarity, and uphold our responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from atrocities. An incalculable number of lives may hang in the balance.


Alex J. Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland

There have been numerous crises of human security since the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle in 2005, not all of them caused by atrocity crimes. Yet each time a major natural disaster strikes – be it a cyclone, a famine, or even climate change itself – there are calls for the application or extension of R2P to address it.

The calls typically come in two, quite distinct, forms. The first suggests a need to broaden the principle of R2P so that the idea of sovereignty as responsibility and the cascade of obligation that comes with it can be utilised to address issues other than atrocity crimes. The second suggests a crisis or event is relevant to R2P because it increases the risk of atrocity crime in some part of the world.

The first are issues best left to academic debating houses. However laudable the argument, there is little political appetite right now for expanding the scope of R2P and little reason to think that attempting to do so would help either the battle against atrocity crimes or whatever other human ill is at the forefront of our minds.

The second issue, though, is not only pertinent, it is urgent. In these difficult times, those in the business of supporting the implementation of R2P need to look carefully at the potential implications of COVID 19 for atrocity crimes. We have been doing just that in the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P, focusing our efforts on our part of the world. Here, we see three major issues.

First, the pandemic threatens to heap further misery on populations who have already suffered due to atrocity crimes or their imminent danger: the plight of the one million Rohingyas huddling for sanctuary in Cox’s Bazar and the one million Uighurs forcibly detained by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are particularly troubling.

Second, we are troubled by evidence that governments inclined to authoritarianism and majority groups inclined to victimising minorities might increase the risk of atrocity crimes they pose. In the Philippines, President Duterte – already under investigation by the ICC – has told police to shoot lockdown breakers on sight.

Third, amidst all this, the willingness and capacity of states to cooperate to protect vulnerable communities – already diminished – is being further impaired as states look inwards to protect their own. So, at the very time that we need a deeper sense of shared responsibility to protect populations at risk, what we are getting is recrimination and competition.

These are the issues that should be at the fore as we think about the implications of COVID 19 for R2P.


Karen Smith, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect

Let me start by saying that the consensus reached around the principle of the Responsibility to Protect in 2005 was hard won, and any attempt to broaden the concept beyond the four crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, runs the risk of undermining this fragile consensus. Having said that, the responsibilities that individual states have towards their populations clearly extend far beyond protecting them from atrocities, and arguably extends to protection from health threats. Depending on one’s political and philosophical orientation, a similar argument could be made for the responsibilities of the international community. Conversations about the responsibilities of states, and how these can best be achieved, are therefore important, but do not need to be linked to the Responsibility to Protect, which has a deliberately narrow focus.

Having said that, the Covid-19 pandemic clearly has serious implications for the Responsibility to Protect, not least because it is likely to significantly increase the risk to already vulnerable populations. We are already witnessing that existing risks are being exacerbated by responses to the pandemic, including the closing of borders and increased discrimination against particular groups. In the development of national and global responses to the crisis, it is essential that any action takes into consideration the potential implications for the risk of atrocity crimes. This relates to both structural risk factors, but in some cases, also an increase in imminent risk factors. Some of the lessons being learned in dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak are also relevant for atrocity prevention. These include the obvious, but consistently under-prioritised, truth that prevention is better than cure. Similarly, the importance of early warning – whether with reference to conflict, pandemics, or atrocity crimes, is being underlined.

In conclusion, while governments around the world are now, understandably, focused on addressing the pandemic, they should be reminded of the commitment they made in 2005 to also protect their populations, and those of other states, when necessary, against atrocity crimes.


Kate Ferguson, Co-Executive Director, Protection Approaches

Every country in the world will experience identity-based violence as a result of the coronavirus crisis. This already includes documentation around the world of hate crimes against people of Chinese and east Asian appearance and a global rise in domestic violence. Some states have been quick to mobilise the fear of the crisis to justify, or distract attention away from, authoritarian power grabs. Hungary’s government moved within days of the virus reaching Europe to indefinitely freeze refugee applications and is currently seeking to end the legal recognition of trans people.

We know that moments of acute stress exacerbate existing structural risk factors of atrocities and create new ones. The economic, social and political consequences of Covid-19 could, without timely intervention, take more lives than the virus itself.

The principle of collective responsibility to protect populations from atrocities is first and foremost a responsibility to prevent; if this is not a global moment where the short and long-term prevention of human rights abuses are to be prioritised in decision making then I don’t know what is.

It is also a responsibility that begins at home and extends around the world. Its pillars provide a framework for thinking and implementing that connects the local, national and international – which is what any effective response to this crisis requires.

R2P and its associated architecture should now be leveraged to ensure that the Covid-19 response has at its heart the principle of collective and community responsibility. Decades of good peacebuilding and atrocity prevention work have taught us this is where resilience of all kinds comes from – not just the prevention of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

There is global network of R2P focal points, made up of over 60 senior-level representatives from countries in all regions of the world; a ready-made mechanism to ensure that national, regional, and multilateral responses to the coronavirus crisis integrate the principles of atrocity prevention. Beyond the UN and formal structure, R2P has fostered a wider community of experts who understand the import of integrating preventative frameworks into decision making: Covid-19 is certainly an unprecedented challenge and one the R2P community must be a part of.


Your view…

Nadia Rubaii & Max Pensky, Co-Directors, Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (I-GMAP), Binghamton University

The world’s most vulnerable populations will likely suffer from the current COVID 19 pandemic on a scale comparable to many documented genocides, illustrating that it is no longer possible to make clear distinctions between human-caused atrocities and other disasters in which human agency or human neglect are contributing factors. Who is responsible for protecting the world from such atrocities, and by what means can that be accomplished? The question posed to start this conversation was whether expanding R2P to extend beyond atrocity crimes and to encompass global health and environmental threats to human life would be helpful.

COVID-19 is demonstrating what is well understood among genocide scholars and atrocity prevention practitioners. Once a process of mass lethality– whether a conflict or a global pandemic – is underway, the response options become fewer in number, costlier, and with less prospects for success. Worse still, while we desperately need a global response, we are instead witnessing myopic reactions focused on protecting one’s own community, state or country, as if global public health were a zero-sum game.

R2P is a necessary, but by no means sufficient framework for protecting vulnerable populations from mass atrocities. R2P represents an agreement among state actors regarding responsibilities of state actors. This state-centric focus within national, regional and international arenas perpetuates an emphasis on midstream mitigation and response. If, however, the goal is upstream prevention before conflict – or a pandemic – we need to augment R2P with a parallel model of responsibility to build resilience and capacity for prevention, a model that emphasizes the crucial but often under-valued roles that individuals and organizations in the private and nonprofit sectors, as well as subnational governments, can play in preventing atrocities.

Prevention needs to be forward thinking. To increase the chances of preventing the next global crisis – whether atrocity, pandemic illness, or some as-yet unknown threat – we need to begin now the process of educating the individuals who will be working tomorrow across all sectors, jobs, communities, and countries to help them understand and embrace their individual and collective responsibility to prevent atrocities. States will continue to play a leading role, but only with a broad-based network of prevention actors will the state-focused R2P model – whether in its current or an expanded form – be effective.


György Tatár, Chair, Budapest Centre for Mass Atrocities Prevention

Time by time, since the adoption of the RtoP both scholars and practitioners raised the idea that the scope of the norm should be widened to “tailor it to the new emerging risks” be those natural disasters, pandemics, environmental threats etc.

When reflecting on these initiatives and suggestions which rightly mirror the concerns over the protection of populations, we may not forget about the original idea of the Responsibility to Protect. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty which elaborated the fundamental document on the principle intended to build up capacities all over the world for enabling international and state actors to protect populations from the four crimes with reference to whatever circumstances anybody intended to perpetrate those.

Unfortunately, the political, economic and psychological stresses caused by the pandemic generates extra pressure for societies, and might give rise to hatred and activities which may lead to extreme situations and tragic actions. The principle of RtoP implies that the international community and national stakeholders should assess the risks and address thoroughly the challenges of pandemics through the lens of mass atrocities, too.

The Budapest Centre shares these concerns and condemns any endeavors which have already misused or exploited the emergency situation, to oppress political discontent, discriminate against people, further marginalize vulnerable groups and ultimately, perpetrate the four horrible crimes.

In our view, the international community should seize the sorrowful opportunity created by the pandemic to encourage international and state actors to assert that during the battle against CODIV-19, the principle of the Responsibility to Protect as adopted will be duly taken into account, further operationalized, and the international and national capacities improved in order to prevent the exacerbation of the grave situation and perpetration of the four crimes.

Samuel Owusu-Antwi, PhD Candidate,The Legon Centre for International Affairs and Diplomacy (LECIAD), University of Ghana, Legon

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a wave of grim predictions about Africa’s health and economic profile. The UN Economic Commission for Africa, in its “worse- case scenario” model, estimates 3.3 million deaths and 1.2 billion infections in Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) projects malaria mortality to double in sub-Saharan Africa. Global economic stagnation is likely to spur a vicious cycle of poverty which could accentuate horizontal inequalities on the African continent. Wanton abuse of lockdown emergency powers by authoritarian governments could sow the seeds of risk factors for heinous crimes.

The aforementioned poses an existential threat to millions of vulnerable populations, indicative of ‘large scale loss of life’ on a scale similar to mass atrocity crimes. This is not the time for powerful, rich Western states to commandeer critical resources, such as personal protective equipment and testing kits, to the detriment of citizens who occupy the “bottom billion”, poorest regions of the world.

The Global North has a responsibility to protect lives beyond their borders. Responding to this challenge requires the international community to draw inspiration from Pillars 1 and 2 of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), which reinforce the dual role of the state and the international community in obviating the risk factors of mass atrocity crimes. This provides an entry point for the Global North to demonstrate humanitarian leadership by lifting the poorest regions of this world out of their COVID-19 misery.

Ultimately, what we need is not an expansive focus of RtoP. Through its emphasis on a cosmopolitan formulation of our mutual vulnerabilities, however, RtoP has laid bare the normative and ethical dimensions of states’ relations, a discovery that ought to guide the equitable deployment of resources globally to protect vulnerable and marginalized groups from the scourge of COVID-19. Cooperation, not disengagement, should be our weapon.