The Responsibility to Protect and the Private Sector: Opportunities for Public-Private Cooperation in Atrocity Prevention


Ellen Chambers, International Institute for Human Security

Almost two decades on from the conceptualization of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), protecting civilian populations during armed conflict is more pressing than ever. The world is now bearing witness to the highest levels of forced displacement on record, fueled by humanitarian crises and conflict in almost every corner of the globe.1 Despite substantial progress in conceptualizing R2P frameworks, the international community has under-delivered on its commitment to shield civilian populations from mass atrocities. A more comprehensive, operational and whole-of-society approach that prioritizes prevention measures is essential for States to successfully translate R2P commitments into action.

R2P as a concept was first introduced by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in its 2001 report discussing the “right of humanitarian intervention” for human protection purposes.2 It was subsequently revised and unanimously adopted by UN Member States at the 2005 World Summit. R2P is defined by three key pillars: that individual States have a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity; that the international community should encourage and assist States in fulfilling its responsibility; and that when a State manifestly fails to protect its population, the international community must take collective action in a decisive and timely manner.3 In essence, R2P recognizes that State sovereignty is not absolute and, by the same token, that sovereignty is not a justification for non-interference in situations where civilian populations are subjected to mass atrocities.

While by definition R2P pertains largely to States, approaches to atrocity prevention should engage a wide range of stakeholders. From an early-warning standpoint, field-based actors are well-positioned to monitor, assess and report on risk factors as they arise. However, in order to do so, they must first know what to look for. Private sector companies, through the provision of services to United Nations (UN) and regional stabilization missions, have a critical role to play in this regard. Companies are increasingly hiring local staff to support a range of housing, logistics, and infrastructure projects, which offers stabilizing benefits by bringing jobs and wealth into local economies. To assist States in fulfilling R2P obligations, companies should offer all field-based employees specialized training in understanding R2P and recognizing early-warning signs of atrocity crimes. Doing so will strengthen prevention capacity and enable local workers to play an active role in fostering harmony, respect, and understanding within their own communities. It can also provide significant long-term atrocity prevention benefits, as local staff will remain in-country long after stabilization missions depart.

Companies should also engage in public-private dialogue focused on R2P in order to understand the context and experience of the communities within which they operate. When private companies are excluded from R2P conversations, they will be left largely unaware of the ways in which they can contribute to civilian protection. R2P must ultimately be understood by everyone, everywhere. Its normalization will serve to strengthen international atrocity prevention efforts, and thereby improve prospects for sustainable peace in vulnerable communities around the world.

Private companies are also increasingly employing new and more advanced technologies to enhance their operations. The acquisition of drone, surveillance, cyber, and communication technologies offer tremendous potential to strengthen R2P efforts. It will not only enable companies to monitor their operations, but greatly strengthen early-warning and civilian protection capacity. Such technologies can be leveraged to monitor, predict, and respond rapidly to threats as they emerge. Through the establishment of public-private partnerships in this regard, companies can become a driving force in the development of global technology-based R2P initiatives. To prevent is to ultimately protect, and enhanced early-warning capabilities will go a long way in disrupting the planning and commission of mass atrocity crimes.

Sustained atrocity prevention relies on strong coalitions of governments, international and regional organizations, civil society, and the private sector. R2P should be everyone’s business, and the private sector should be recognized as an important partner within R2P and atrocity prevention frameworks. By the same token, private companies should strive to implement socially responsible policies and assume an active role in assisting States meet their R2P obligations. In order for atrocity prevention efforts to have a meaningful and lasting impact, R2P must continue to evolve into a more comprehensive, inclusive, and globally actionable norm.

[1] “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018”, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 20 June 2019, available at

[2] “The Responsibility to Protect”, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, December 2001, available at

[3] General Assembly Resolution 60/1, 2005 World Summit Outcome, A/RES/60/1 (16 September 2005), available at

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Ellen Chambers is an Advocacy Writer at the International Institute for Human Security, focusing on the Responsibility to Protect. The International Insitute for Human Security is a peacebuilding NGO focused on knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer using a virtual platform. Prior to this, she served for three years as a Research Specialist at Squire Patton Boggs in Washington, DC, providing assistance to foreign government clients on matters of international humanitarian law, conflict, and human rights. She previously held roles at the Public International Law and Policy Group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Habibie Center. Ellen holds a Master of Arts in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University's School of International Service, and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Lynn University.


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