The implications of an increasingly urbanized world for military operations, and consequently for the protection of civilians, are significant. Traditionally, the challenge for military forces is how to defeat threats embedded and diffused within the population, without causing catastrophic damage to civil society, destruction of critical urban infrastructure, and civilian casualties. Emerging and disruptive technologies, however, will exacerbate the threat to civilians and complicate the challenge for military forces to conduct operations. A paper by The Stimson Center draws on findings and develops them into a set of recommendations for NATO as they work to protect civilians in future urban conflicts.

The Policy reflects the fundamental understanding that the protection of civilians is an obligation of all parties to conflict. The foundation of this protection is international humanitarian law (IHL). Yet even under the law, some harm to civilians is permissible. Armed actors must distinguish between civilians and combatants, and between civilian and military objects; must ensure that their attacks are proportional; and that they are a military necessity. The Policy goes further, thus, in stating that NATO will work to protect civilians from the harm of its own operations as a matter of policy (adding to its legal obligations), as well as to protect civilians from the harm of others – a goal to prevent perpetrator tactics used in modern warfare to go against civilians. Even if this Policy was not in place, NATO would face such issues in future urban settings and need to plan for such settings. In urban environments, civilians are almost always present and may be at-risk or vulnerable; assessing those threats and vulnerabilities will assist military planners. Likewise, urban populations depend on systems such as water, sanitation, electricity, food production and distribution, and access to transportation and communications. This imposes the obligation (whether in a formal legal sense, or – equally important – as a prerequisite for mission success) to protect critical systems, while also creating a temptation for combatants to target civilians or critical systems in order to weaponize a city against an adversary. Thus, in an urbanized battlespace, the traditional understanding of the protection of civilians requires updating and expanding.

The character of UN Peace Operations has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. As the international community needed to react to the complexities of modern conflicts, peacekeeping mandates have become more comprehensive and also more robust. In this context, the protection of civilians (PoC) has become a central part of UN Peace Operations. The consequences of this development are significant and have affected peacekeeping on all levels – from the military, police, and civilian personnel in the missions, to the operational planners in the headquarters, up to the political decisions of the Security Council. Ultimately, all levels face the same challenge with regard to PoC: how to narrow the gap between ambition and reality of protecting civilians? The answers to this urgent question will have considerable impact on the future of UN Peace Operations as well as that of stability operations outside the UN framework
The RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT ("RtoP" or "R2P") is an international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The INTERNATIONAL COALITION FOR THE RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT (ICRtoP) brings together NGOs from all regions of the world to strengthen normative consensus for RtoP, further the understanding of the norm, push for strengthened capacities to prevent and halt genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and mobilize NGOs to push for action to save lives in RtoP country-specific situations. The norm was used to address the international community's failure in Libya. More relevant knowledge about R2P is available at:


A new report concludes that the United States ought to work to strengthen implementation of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in order to better protect civilians from genocide and other forms of mass atrocity. The report, released July 2013, is based on two years of deliberations by the Working Group on the Responsibility to Protect, a joint project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Brookings Institution, and the United States Institute of Peace. The report states that the emerging doctrine of R2P is a useful tool that needs to be developed further, both in the US and globally, and recommends ways in which US policy makers can strengthen and better apply it.
R2P consists of three pillars: first, it is the responsibility of every state to protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity; second, the international community has a responsibility to assist and encourage the state in fulfilling its protection obligations; and third, if a state fails to protect its population or is in fact the perpetrator of such crimes, the international community must also be prepared to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner, in accordance with the UN Charter, to protect those populations.

Since world leaders unanimously adopted the R2P doctrine as part of the 2005 United Nations World Summit outcome document, the international community has a mixed track record of applying it when mass violence is threatened or occurs. The report takes a critical look at the legacy of the international response in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Syria, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, and Sri Lanka.

“Sixty-eight years after the Holocaust, governments continue to struggle with how to prevent genocide and mass atrocities,” said co-authors Albright and Williamson. “In the United States, both Republican and Democratic administrations have agreed that is in our national interests to do so. We hope that our efforts to shed light on the Responsibility to Protect as a mechanism for protecting civilians from future harm will provide our government with additional means to help prevent the world’s worst crimes.”

“If the R2P doctrine can do anything, it is to help move us away from a policy of indifference and waiting for the worst, and more aggressively toward adopting policies that prevent atrocities before they begin,”.

Some of the report’s key recommendations are that the US government should:

1)   At all levels and in all appropriate branches, commit to, report on, and assess the implementation of R2P, and articulate a clear vision of US support for atrocity prevention and the principles of R2P.

2)   Launch a global diplomatic initiative with international and regional bodies to strengthen the world’s capacity and commitment to prevent genocide and mass atrocities.

3)   Share the burden of responsibility by enhancing the capacity of regional organizations to provide emergency crisis settlement, peacekeeping, and civilian protection services to populations at risk.

4)   Explore all options, including the use of modern communication technologies, for appropriate nonmilitary ways to undermine the ability of would-be perpetrators to commit atrocities, and explore enhanced early warning mechanisms.

5)   Expand its policy of positive engagement with the
International Criminal Court.

2015 marked the 10th anniversary of the unanimous endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) by world leaders at the 2005 UN World Summit. As outlined in the Outcome Document, each State has the responsibility to protect its own population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity (Pillar 1). This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility (Pillar 2). In extreme cases where a State is manifestly failing to prevent atrocities, the international community should be prepared to take appropriate collective action in accordance with the UN Charter to halt these crimes (Pillar 3).

The 10th anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect provides a unique opportunity to advance and promote greater cooperation on the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect, particularly its preventive aspects, by Geneva-based organisations. The UN Secretary-General’s reports on the Responsibility to Protect have consistently highlighted the importance of preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity through capacity building, early warning and strengthening accountable and inclusive national institutions. Geneva-based organisations play a crucial role in this regard. Investing in prevention is particularly relevant given the proliferation of humanitarian crises we face today.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary, and to highlight further the role of Geneva in promoting human rights and preventing atrocity crimes, the Core Group in Geneva, the Permanent Missions of Australia, Ghana, Hungary, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uruguay, with the support of the United Nations Office at Geneva, the Graduate Institute and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect is pleased to facilitate a high-level panel discussion to bring together senior representatives of both Geneva and New York-based UN agencies, States, regional organisations and civil society. This interactive discussion will identify ways to strengthen cooperation on existing prevention mechanisms, including the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes. The Panel will also explore ways to mainstream the Responsibility to Protect through the work of Geneva-based agencies and organisations and to advance the development and implementation of prevention strategies. Panellists will be invited to discuss how their respective organisations and governments contribute to implementing the Responsibility to Protect, particularly Pillars 1 and 2.