Desmond Tutu on the Responsibility to Protect

In 2008, the New York Times published an essay on the concept of the responsibility to protect (R2P) by Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town. Key comments by the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate:

“Unfortunately, the Responsibility to Protect is frequently misunderstood. It is not a justification of military intervention. It simply requires states to protect their own people and help other states to build the capacity to do the same. It means that international organizations like the UN have a responsibility to warn, to generate effective preventive strategies, and when necessary, to mobilize effective responses. The crisis in Kenya illustrates this: The primary role for outside actors is to protect civilians – not least by helping governments to improve security and protect human rights. Nevertheless, despite some encouraging signs, little progress has been made towards implementing R2P, as it is often called, at the UN or at the national level… More must be done to bring R2P to life… The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust and the use of nuclear weapons. World opinion came together then to say, ‘never again.’

Yet in the past six decades, we have witnessed mass atrocities committed against others across the globe. We all share a responsibility to do whatever we can to help prevent and protect one another from such violence. The place to start is with prevention: through measures aimed in particular at building state capacity, remedying grievances, and ensuring the rule of law. My hope is that in the future, the Responsibility to Protect will be exercised not after the murder and rape of innocent people, but when community tensions and political unrest begin. It is by preventing, rather than reacting, that we can truly fulfill our shared responsibility to end the worst forms of human rights abuses.”

Does the international community now have a responsibility to protect the people of Syria who are protesting against their government?

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1 Comment

  1. Magan Haycock

     /  11/02/2012

    Yes, I think the international community should enforce R2P with the current Syrian crisis. But only if it plans to enforce R2P in all other circumstances of humanitarian abuse as well. Allow me explain…

    Firstly, I agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A focus on prevention will stop the US and other Western states from only selectively intervening in states where their own interests are concerned. A focus on prevention will also show that the international community is truly concerned with preserving the lives of civilians, before the death toll of these civilians is so high the international community has no choice but to react.

    There are enough human rights monitors now existent that can predict political instability, civil war, and other humanitarian disasters. An example is genocide: the UN has a Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide ( and a Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (

    If the international community were truly serious about a widespread implementation of R2P, and followed Desmond Tutu’s advice, the US government should at this moment be on the watch for countries that follow patterns of future genocides. It would not just enforce R2P in an oil-supplying nation when it is on the brink of civil war.

    So, if the international community is going to intervene in Syria, it must also take a step back and look at where it should intervene in the rest of the world as well.


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