At the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations, more than 170 Heads of State and Government accepted three interlinked responsibilities, which together constitute the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). First, States accepted their primary responsibility to protect their own population from mass atrocity crimes. Second, they pledged to assist each other in fulfilling their domestic protection responsibilities. And finally, as members of the international community, they assumed the collective responsibility to react, in a timely and decisive manner, if any State were ‘manifestly failing’ to protect its population from mass atrocity crimes. Those three responsibilities are now commonly summarised in the language of R2P’s ‘three pillars’.
Among the key constitutive elements of the principle of R2P, prevention has been deemed by many as the single most important. Scholars and policy-makers alike concede that it is both normatively and politically desirable to act early to prevent mass atrocity crimes from being committed—rather than to react after they are already underway. Yet, while the more general topic of conflict prevention has been—and continues to be—a subject of explicit discussion by policy-makers, an important field of inquiry for academics, and a crucial area of advocacy for civil society groups, there has been comparatively less attention paid to the prevention of the four specific crimes related to R2P. Too often, as in the original report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, there is an assumption that more general conflict prevention concepts and frameworks can be borrowed for the purpose of thinking strategically about what the prevention of R2P crimes entails. However, this way of conceptualising R2P’s prevention dimension is increasingly being challenged. As the International Peace Institute notes in a 2009 report: ‘The references to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity … give [Responsibility to Protect] a distinctive focus and imperative.’ This working paper seeks to develop a more specific strategic framework for the prevention of mass atrocity crimes, which can serve to inform the use of particular prevention tools.