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The Responsibility to Protect and the Failures of the United Nations Security Council

International Justice and Human Rights Unit – Research in Action

Dr Patrick Butchard’s current research projects are examining the legal consequences of the failures of the United Nations Security Council to act in response to genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. This research examines the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, and its relationship with the Security Council’s primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security, shedding light on the legal possibilities and consequences of using forcible and coercive measures to implement these responsibilities beyond the council’s failures and paralysis.

In the 2005 World Summit Outcome, the international community accepted the emerging notion of the ‘responsibility to protect’. The world recognised a primary responsibility on States to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Additionally, they recognised a ‘secondary’ responsibility on the international community, including the United Nations, to assist and encourage States in their primary responsibility to protect. The emergence of the ‘responsibility to protect’ is a relatively new development in international law – it is at the frontline of the international community’s efforts towards ensuring that States adhere to the principles of international law in response to mass atrocities within their own jurisdiction. It also calls for the wider international community to act in responding to such situations, highlighting legal and legitimate foundations upon which to assist or intervene when a State fails in its primary responsibility.

However, if both the State (with a primary responsibility) and the Security Council (with a secondary responsibility) fail to act in response to the said mass atrocities, it may be difficult, if not impossible, for the international community to take appropriate action – especially if the use of military force is required. Therefore, this research looks beyond the Security Council for legal alternatives to its inaction. It assesses popular arguments for alternative routes within the UN, such as through the General Assembly, and also outside of the UN system too, whether unilaterally or through regional organisations.

To investigate the availability of options beyond the Security Council, the research concentrates on the legality of forcible and coercive measures such as military force or ‘sanctions’. With the fundamental principles of the prohibition of force and non-intervention as the focus of legal analysis, the original purpose of the UN collective security system will be traced from the origins of the Charter so that previously-overlooked insights into the law may shed new light on the interpretation of these important legal foundations. By evaluating the legality, and indeed the appropriateness, of options outside of the Security Council, the research will provide an opportunity to ask whether such alternatives can, or should, form part of a ‘tertiary’ responsibility to protect.

Through this research, Dr Butchard argues that there are legal avenues for establishing such a tertiary responsibility to protect, and identifies the relevant actors who have legal competence to implement it.

Key resources:

  • UNGA Res 366 (V), Uniting for Peace, 3rd November 1950, UN Doc A/RES/377(V).
  • International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect, (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001).
  • 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, in UNGA Res 60/1, 15th September 2005, UN Doc A/RES/60/1, at [138]-[139].
  • Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, ‘The Responsibility to Protect: A Background Briefing’, (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, September 2017),
  • G Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Washington, DC, USA, Brookings Institution Press, 2008).
  • A Bellamy “Whither the Responsibility to Protect? Humanitarian Intervention and the 2005 World Summit,” (2006) 20 Ethics and International Affairs 143; see also, A Bellamy, The Responsibility to Protect: A Defence (Oxford University Press, 2014).
  • C Stahn, “Responsibility to Protect: Political Rhetoric or Emerging Legal Norm?” (2007) 101(1) American Journal of International Law 99.


  • P M Butchard, Responsibility to Protect and the Failures of the United Nations Security Council (Forthcoming, Hart, 2020).