School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

The Responsibility to Protect and the Responsibility to Prosecute

Georgiana Epure, University of Cambridge, UK

Georgiana is an editor of the R2P Student Journal. She holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Leeds. As an Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholar, she worked with the Intervention and International Society Research Cluster at Leeds. In 2015, she founded the R2P Student Coalition at Leeds. Her article was written in her finaly year at the University of Leeds.

There are few occurrences that bind states and make them aware of their common values. The protection of populations from mass atrocities that shock the conscience of humankind is one of them. This article looks at states’ and the international community’s responsibilities to protect (R2P) and prosecute. The article argues that these two responsibilities have a complementary relationship, as they share the same goal of protecting people from gross human rights violations. However, this relationship, a mixture of political and judicial measures, can work against that goal when R2P and the responsibility to prosecute are used simultaneously as conflict management tools in on-going crises.

The article has a twofold structure. First, using English School theory, it examines how these responsibilities emerged and what they entail. This will be followed by an analysis of their complementary relationship and an assessment of how both these normative projects, which have universal moral underpinnings, blur the lines between two different types of world orders: the society of states and the world society. The second part analyses how the closeness between R2P and the responsibility to prosecute can be problematic as it may result in legitimacy and civilian protection costs. The article concludes nonetheless that the intimate link between R2P and the responsibility to prosecute strengthens the global protection discourse and increases the guilt for inaction. That is because the potential problems of legitimacy and civilian protection costs can be mitigated if the coercive tools of the R2P and responsibility to prosecute – Pillar III on the one hand, and proprio motu and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) referrals on the other – are sequenced so that criminal accountability acts retrospectively. If this does not happen, the responsibility to prosecute can undermine R2P’s human security agenda.

Two Responsibilities, One Goal

The international community has been developing a global normative project to protect people from gross human rights violations. This project comprises different ‘sets of norms and practices’ that entail different types of actions (Mills, 2015a, p.1). The responsibility to prosecute (punishing those most responsible of mass atrocities) and R2P (preventing mass atrocities, assisting states to protect or using peaceful or coercive means to stop mass atrocities) are two of these norms and practices. The responsibility to prosecute has a longer history than R2P, dating back to 1474, when the first international trial was held (Schabas, 2011, p.1). R2P has its roots in the failure of the responses to the humanitarian crises in 1990s, which were either lacking, as in the case of Rwanda, or were ‘illegal but legitimate’ as in the case of Kosovo (The Independent International Commission on Kosovo, 2000, p.4). R2P as a concept emerged from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Report (ICISS) in 2001, as a response to then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s (1999) call for reconciling state sovereignty and humanitarian intervention in order to allow for international responses to protect populations from mass atrocities.  In 2005, world governments unanimously agreed that they have a responsibility to protect their populations from four crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing (UNGA, 2005, WSOD, para. 138, 139). Four years later, UN Secretary General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon published his first R2P report, ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’, which outlines the three pillars of the R2P. Pillar I consists of each state’s responsibility to protect its population from the four crimes. Pillar II is the international community’s responsibility to assist states that are unable to uphold their R2P. Pillar III is triggered when a state ‘manifestly fails’ to protect its population, in which case the international community has a responsibility to respond collectively in a timely and decisive manner to protect the population at risk.

The responsibility to prosecute as a (legal) norm has developed through a series of international conventions that created an international legal obligation to prosecute genocide, war crimes and torture. For example, granting amnesties, asylum or exile to perpetrators of such crimes would constitute a breach of treaty obligations (such as The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984, the ‘grave breaches’ of the Geneva Conventions 1949) – as they mean that no prosecution would be forthcoming (Scharf, 2006, p.350-1). The responsibility to prosecute began to be institutionalised after the end of World War II (Schabas, 2011, pp.5-16) through the establishment of the International Military Tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo, the creation of the ad-hoc international tribunals in Rwanda and Former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and culminated in the establishment of the permanent and independent International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002.

R2P, on the other hand, lacks an institutional embodiment. Nevertheless, as Ralph (2016, p.2) highlights, R2P and the responsibility to prosecute (through the ICC) share a recent history that commits them to ‘the long-term goal of ending mass atrocities’. These two responsibilities have developed alongside each other, despite the fact that they are not formally linked (Ainley, 2015, p.37). First, they have a close relationship because they overlap in their focus on the protection against the same crimes. Because R2P focuses solely on four crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing), this section analyses whether there is a responsibility to prosecute these particular crimes.

First, states that ratified the 1948 Genocide Convention have a legal duty to prosecute those responsible for genocide, the über crime, which is considered a jus cogens crime, that is, states are prohibited from committing it under all circumstances (Scharf, 2006, p.364). Jus cogens norms reflect a general consensus (Ralph, 2007, p.9); they are peremptory norms accepted by the whole international community for which states’ consent is not needed as they have foundations in natural law from which no derogation is permitted (Scharf, 2006, p.364-5). Second, under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, there is a duty to prosecute war crimes. However, it is worth noting that the ‘grave breaches’ of the Geneva Conventions, which impose a duty to prosecute, punish or extradite war crimes perpetrators, only apply to international armed conflict that involve at least two states (Scharf, 2006, p.351). R2P responses to war crimes, however, generally occur in internal armed conflicts. This is because civil wars are now much more common than international armed conflicts. . Nevertheless, whilst states and international tribunals can prosecute war crimes in internal conflicts (see the ICTY-Prosecutor v. Tadic, Case No. IT-94-1, 1995, paras.97-137), there is no absolute legal duty to do so (Scharf, 2006, p.352). Third, with regard to crimes against humanity there is no absolute requirement to prosecute. As Scharf (2006, p.360) stresses, crimes against humanity are a ‘creature of customary international law’, generated out of the jurisdiction of the Nuremberg Tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Special Court in Sierra Leone, and most recently codified in the Rome Statue of the ICC. Although there is no legal duty to prosecute crimes against humanity, under customary international law, which is defined as ‘a general and consistent practice of states followed by a sense of legal obligation’, amnesty and asylum are prohibited for such crimes (Scharf, 2006, p.360). The fourth crime, ethnic cleansing, does not have a definitive legal definition under international criminal law (Bellamy and Reike, 2010). However, it is covered by crimes against humanity under the jurisdiction of the ICC. In short, the twin responsibilities to protect and prosecute represent two ‘inter-related twin tasks [to] protect victims and punish the perpetrators’ of the same mass atrocities (Thakur and Popovski, 2007, p.41).

As discussed, the responsibility to prosecute is entrenched in international criminal law. R2P, on the other hand, is ‘a political commitment’ (Bellamy and Reike, 2010, p.267), arose from legal commitments as well (see, for example, 1948 Genocide Convention); that is, R2P did not create new obligations, but reinforced customs already entrenched in international law. To be clear, R2P is not legally void, but has more of a moral and political nature, particularly in what concerns its reactive pillars, whether supportive (Pillar II) or coercive (Pillar III) (p.269). R2P’s normative status is also more problematic because of its complex nature. As Stahn (2015, p.19) puts it, R2P is a set of norms, an ‘umbrella concept’ (Stahn, 2015, p.19), which makes its internalization difficult (Welsh, 2013, p.386). Despite the disequilibrium in their normative strengths, the responsibility to prosecute and the R2P contribute to achieving the same goal: protection from mass atrocities – whether through ‘interventions to stop atrocities’ or ‘holding individuals criminally responsible for atrocities’ (Mills, 2015a, p.1). To tweak Sikkink’s words (see ‘The Justice Cascade’, 2011), these two responsibilities create a ‘protection cascade’ that strengthens the protection discourse both at the domestic and the international level, in domestic and international law, norms and institutions.

Additionally, both norms draw on similar foundations of a ‘humanity-based defense of international authority’ (Stahn, 2015, p.13) and they both call for ‘humanitarian concerns to be of international concern’ (Birdsall, 2015, p.54). The development of the responsibility to protect and prosecute norms mirrors the evolution of a changing world order, which Dunne and Wheeler (1999) identify as a ‘critical international society’ where states create and advance cosmopolitan values and universal moral principles and norms that transcend the society of states. The responsibilities to protect and prosecute are measures developed to defend such values, which advance the creation of an international community (world society). As the English School solidarist scholars note, the international society ‘eventually spills over the boundary into world society’ (Buzan, 2001, p.479), because states have a responsibility to a greater concept of ‘the common good, which may include a conception of humanity that is founded in natural or customary international law’ (Ralph, 2007, p.9). As Buzan (2001, p.478) puts it, shared moral norms are the foundation of ‘a more expansive, and almost inevitably more interventionist, understanding of international order’ – this includes both an international responsibility to act to protect populations from gross human rights violations and a responsibility to prosecute those responsible of orchestrating them. Due to this sense of moral obligation, states act as agents of humanity to protect populations and ‘save strangers’ (Wheeler, 2000).

International criminal justice (especially with crimes under universal jurisdiction and the UNSC referrals to the ICC) and R2P blur the lines between the society of states, in which state sovereignty is still the constitutive rule, and the world society, which rests on a ‘common perception of humanity’ (Ralph, 2007, p.17), where ‘the state complements the work of other supranational institutions’ (p.18). Nevertheless, both norms require ‘substantial derogation of sovereignty’, R2P with respect to the norm of territorial non-intervention and the responsibility to prosecute with respect to the norm of sovereign impunity (Thakur and Popovski, 2007, p.41). R2P is a universal agreement that binds states and the international community to prevent and stop mass atrocities, and that asserts that state sovereignty is not absolute. International criminal justice further strengthens a society ‘based on humanity rather than sovereignty’ (Durkheim, 1933, p.63). This is reflected in the Rome Statute, which gives the Prosecutor discretionary power to act without the consent of the UNSC, which makes the ICC independent from the society of states (Art. 15) – however, the UNSC can still have the last word under Art. 16 which gives the Council power to suspend an investigation. Both norms contribute to the erosion of the negative, absolute sovereignty, and strengthen positive sovereignty (see Thakur and Popovski, 2007, p.48). The development of the responsibility to protect and prosecute has shown that the focus has shifted from the negative function of sovereignty (acting as a shell from outside interference in the internal affairs of a state, in order to maintain state pluralism in international relations) to its positive function, which focuses on the population of a state and its protection. This makes sovereigns accountable both internally and externally: to their populations and to the international community (Piiparinen, 2012, p.406).

At the same time, both international responsibilities come secondary to domestic mechanisms, having a complementary function (Contarino et al, 2012, p.272). R2P’s coercive tools are activated on a case-by-case basis when the state ‘manifestly fails’ to protect its population (WSOD, para.139), and the ICC jurisdiction is triggered only when the state is unable and/or unwilling to prosecute (Preamble of the Rome Statute, para.10). Moreover, they both seek to have a supportive role (work in partnership with the state) to achieve their goal rather than use coercive interventions – R2P through Pillar II international assistance and capacity-building, and the responsibility to prosecute through its positive complementarity function that seeks to strengthen states’ capacity for justice. Luban (2013, p.511) describes the latter as ‘norms [getting] spliced into the DNA of domestic law … norm projection at work’, which achieves more than the few trials in The Hague.

To sum up, whilst the two responsibilities are ‘two sides of the same coin’ (Thakur and Popovski, 2007, p.40), they have ‘divided the labour’ of preventing and protecting populations from mass atrocities through a political approach on one hand, and judicial approach on the other.

The Dangers of a Too Tight, Synchronised Relation

How and when these responsibilities apply is crucial to strengthening or undermining their relationship. R2P interventions (supportive or coercive) are prospective, aiming to prevent or stop crises. The responsibility to prosecute is mainly retrospective, holding people accountable after atrocities occurred (Mills, 2015, p.14). However, the ICC, the most recent institutionalistion of the responsibility to prosecute, also holds a preventative function laid down in the Preamble of the Rome Statute (para. 5), which stresses the Court’s role in ending impunity and its contribution to prevention. Holvoet and Mema (2014, p.23) emphasize the ICC’s positive and negative general preventative role by respecting the ‘international criminal law and the core societal values protected therein’ and deterring future crimes. As Mills (2015, p.30) stresses, besides its prevention and deterrence functions, the ICC, by intervening in on–going conflicts, also has a conflict–management role. This can be problematic because these two responsibilities, when employed simultaneously, can undermine each other’s prospects for success (Ralph, 2015, p.5). This risk originates mainly from their asymmetrical relation (Karsten, 2011), rooted in the R2P’s political nature and the legal and apolitical character of the international criminal justice (Ainley, 2015, p.45).

Whilst R2P might benefit normatively from its closeness to the responsibility to prosecute, in practice, their association damages the responsibility to prosecute as it may become politicised. Contarino et al (2012, p.298) argue that the ICC could accelerate R2P’s norm cascade and consolidation (Contarino et al, 2012, p.298). As the former ICC prosecutor stated that the ICC could ‘add legitimacy to Security Council’s decision to apply the R2P concept’ (Moreno–Ocampo, 2006), by establishing a juridical process, rather than a political one, to determine when R2P violations occur (Contarino and Lucent, 2009, p.563). However, when employed in on-going conflicts, first, the ICC risks becoming a politicized tool, which undermines its impartiality and legitimacy (Birdsall, 2015, p.51). The ICC has global reach only when its jurisdiction is unlocked by the UNSC, which can refer non-party states to the ICC. To reach and hold to account people such as Omar al–Bashir and Gaddafi (in non–party states), the ICC is drawn into the political and power dynamics of the UNSC. As Ainley (2015, p.44) argues, the ICC would ‘impinge upon P5 interests if it were to rely increasingly on UNSC referrals to build up its effectiveness’. However, this increase in effectiveness would come at a cost, namely the ICC’s legitimacy as an impartial international institution. By serving the UNSC, the ICC would trade authority (based on its legal character) for power (Ainley, 2015, p.46). This is problematic because impartiality is a key attribute of the ICC.

Second, the responsibility to prosecute in on–going conflicts might also interfere with national efforts for peace, which might include granting amnesties for peace and reconciliation (Mills, 2015a, p.49). However, as has been discussed in the first section of the article, international criminal law prohibits the granting of amnesties for genocide, and customary international law favours punitive, criminal accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Thus, the uncompromising pursuit of international criminal justice makes conflict management difficult (Mills, 2015b, p.73). Sometimes trading peace for justice can have a bigger protection impact. A person’s indictment can interfere with protection and peace agreements because it increases their incentives to continue fighting as the alternative is The Hague (Mills, 2015b, p.82). Given the risks that this tight relationship poses, as Ainley (2015, p.47) concludes, R2P and the ICC can best achieve their goal by focusing on prevention rather than intervention or prosecution. In other words, R2P and the responsibility to prosecute together can achieve more if they focus on their complementarity functions under Pillar II, to strengthen state capacity to prevent, protect and prosecute. As Stahn argues (2015, p.13), it is better to respect the autonomy of these two individual responsibilities and their mutual virtues.


R2P and the responsibility to prosecute are closely related. They are ‘intimately linked’ (Kersten, 2011) and their relationship goes beyond their common recent history, focus on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and their goal of protecting populations from these crimes. These two responsibilities are part of the same global normative project that advances the creation of a world society based on a common sense of shared universal humanity. It is this common humanity that needs to be protected from mass atrocities and to which those who bear the greatest responsibility for planning and organising mass crimes must be held  accountable. Despite the unequal weight in their normative strengths, these two responsibilities consolidate the global discourse for protection against gross human rights violations and increase the guilt for inaction. At the same time, because of the different nature that makes the political and judicial responsibilities complement each other, too tight a relationship can undermine their prospects for success and their protection goal. They both have supportive and coercive functions to pursue their goals. However, when employed at the same time and when they become conflict–management tools in on–going conflicts, international criminal justice can undermine peace efforts and can be used as a political tool, which affects the impartiality and legitimacy of this institution. As a result, their relationship can deliver more when international criminal justice acts retrospectively, and when R2P and the responsibility to prosecute focus on their complementary roles – building states’ capacities to fulfill their domestic protection and prosecution responsibilities, which consolidates prevention.



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