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Politics or Law? The Dual Nature of the Responsibility to Protect

24 Pages Posted: 1 Jan 2013 Last revised: 5 May 2015

Rachel Elizabeth VanLandingham

Southwestern Law School

Date Written: December 31, 2012


No longer wholly an aspirational doctrine, the responsibility to protect concept, as international law, obligates nation-states to protect their people against mass grievous human rights violations, and also obligates the international community to respond in some manner to mass atrocities when a state has failed to fulfill its original sovereign protective responsibility. While this doctrine is multi-faceted, only these two components have attained the status of customary international law, and the latter responsive facet in a rather embryonic and amorphous manner. Though not a black and white discussion, it is important to consider responsibility to protect’s role on the world stage, since such consideration provides a more accurate assessment of national obligations and future actions. It also separately highlights the messy process of the formation of international law.

Customary international law can be rather opaque, and constitutes a spectrum ranging from aspirational ideals on one end, to settled legal precepts and jus cogens on the other. The state’s obligation to protect its own people is farther to the right on this spectrum, toward settled legal precepts, than the nascent obligation of the international community to respond in some manner to gross human rights abuses. However, this essay’s premise — that there is some type of obligation, binding on the international community of nation-states, to react in some condemnatory manner to atrocities previously solely within a sovereign state’s domain — highlights how customary international law evolves.

This Article briefly demonstrates how and why responsibility to protect has otherwise evolved into customary international law by sketching its lineage and citing examples of how it has been utilized. This piece also summarily addresses why the distinction between policy/politics and law matters. The transformation from a political and moral commitment to protect human rights to a binding legal rule is not purely theoretical; it matters because the responsibility to protect as law forecasts how national leaders will react to mass human rights abuses, and informs their future decision-making.

In 2009, the United Nations Secretary-General re-formulated the responsibility to protect into three distinct pillars: “[t]he protection responsibilities of the State”; “[i]nternational assistance and capacity-building”; and “[t]imely and decisive response.” Based on the language of the original international consensus on responsibility to protect as stated at the 2005 World Summit, as well as the global community’s reaction to this re-articulation plus actual practice, this essay declines to find that the Secretary-General’s second pillar has attained customary law status, and explains how only a generalized version of the third has reached the same. The first pillar, however, seems to have become non-controversial international law.

Suggested Citation

VanLandingham, Rachel Elizabeth, Politics or Law? The Dual Nature of the Responsibility to Protect (December 31, 2012). Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 41, No. 1; Stetson University College of Law Research Paper No. 2013-3. Available at SSRN:

Rachel Elizabeth VanLandingham (Contact Author)

Southwestern Law School ( email )

3050 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010
United States
213-738-6684 (Phone)

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