Last month, the Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), George Okoth-Obbo, tendered his resignation after just 17 months in the job. He did not publicly share his reasons for doing so; however, those who worked with him knew he left a situation in which it had become impossible to meaningfully advance either the conceptual and political development or the implementation of the R2P. 

Okoth-Obbo is known as a skilled and passionate advocate for victims of atrocity crimes. He was particularly respected for his commitment to engaging with civil society, at a time at which – according to a letter to Okoth-Obbo from the International Coalition for the R2P – “civic space around the world is shrinking as numerous states carry out deliberate strategies to delegitimize and silence civil society, while opportunities for engagement with UN processes are also becoming increasingly challenging.” That letter thanked Okoth-Obbo for his “steadfast support for civil society organizations and for their critical role in atrocity prevention.” With Okoth-Obbo’s resignation, actors engaged in the work of atrocity prevention have lost a significant ally and advocate, as have populations who face a risk of atrocity crimes. 

The preceding R2P Special Advisor, Karen Smith of South Africa, lasted two and a half years; the one before her, Ambassador Ivan Šimonović of Croatia, lasted only two years. As Šimonović commented following Okoth-Obbo’s resignation, “we should all collectively reflect why the life expectancy of R2P mandate holders is so short … and getting shorter.” This article seeks to provide such reflection. It argues that the next R2P mandate holder must be empowered to effectively advance global efforts to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes. Specifically, it argues that the R2P mandate holder should be provided with a salary, staff, a budget, the support of the Secretary-General, and a mandate to advance not just the conceptual development of the R2P, but also its implementation. 

The Responsibility to Protect, and the Implementation Problem 

The R2P was enshrined by the General Assembly in 2005 in the World Summit Outcome Resolution. In adopting that resolution, States agreed that they have a responsibility to protect their populations from atrocity crimes. They also agreed that the international community has a responsibility to use diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means to help protect populations from such crimes. States moreover affirmed that they were “prepared to take collective action” to help protect populations from atrocity crimes when peaceful means are inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to do so.  

Nearly two decades on, an abundance of evidence attests to the fact that the international community is failing to honor this commitment. 

  • In February this year, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported that in just seven months, 195 civilians were killed or injured in attacks by pro-government forces, and that it had also documented ill-treatment, torture, death, and rape and other forms of sexual violence in detention facilities, amounting to crimes against humanity. 
  • In March, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine concluded that Russian authorities had committed war crimes in Ukraine including wilful killings, attacks on civilians, unlawful confinement, torture, rape, and the forcible transfer and deportation of children. 
  • In May, Amnesty International reported that human rights violations against women and girls in Afghanistan may amount to the crime against humanity of gender persecution, as well as the crimes against humanity of imprisonment in violation of international law, enforced disappearance, and torture. 
  • And in July, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said that the U.N. had documented “sexual violence, mass killings, extra-judicial executions, beheadings, dismemberments, and mutilations.”

With these and other crises in mind, in recent years when the General Assembly has held its annual debate on the R2P, a sizeable cohort of States have expressed frustration at the extent to which efforts to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes are failing. In June, Šimonović – speaking on behalf of the 56 Member States of the R2P Group of Friendssaid that

effective prevention of atrocities can only be achieved if the United Nations system responds holistically by using all the tools and mechanisms at its disposal. This includes effective sharing of relevant information by all parts of the Organisation, which is then acted upon.

Individual States and regional blocs have reflected similar sentiments. In this year’s debate: the EU reiterated its support for the “operationalisation and implementation” of the R2P; Australia urged the Secretary-General to focus his future R2P reports on implementation; Rwanda called on the Secretary-General to report on progress made on previous recommendations on the R2P; and Uruguay pledged its commitment to “deepening efforts” to achieve the implementation of the R2P. In last year’s debate: Bangladesh called for a “multilateral approach in implementing [the R2P]”; Singapore stressed the responsibility of each State and the international community to “help take collective action to protect people”; Lebanon called for a “doubl[ing] down” on the R2P; Canada stressed the need for the R2P to be “put to good use”; and Albania said the need to “fulfill the collective responsibility to populations at risk is more urgent than ever.” 

The challenge of preventing and responding to atrocity crimes is of course partly politics: it will always and inevitably be difficult for States to agree on how to respond to the commission of mass atrocities, particularly because the perpetrators are often States themselves. Every State perpetrator of atrocity crimes has allies, so there will rarely be a unanimous view on what constitutes a necessary and appropriate response. 

Nonetheless, the General Assembly’s debates attest to the fact that there is a widely held view, from at least some States from all regions of the world, that the international community must do better at preventing and responding to atrocity crimes, wherever they occur. In this year’s R2P debate, “the overwhelming majority of States” expressed their support for the relevant paragraphs of the World Summit Outcome resolution. And, as suggested by the comments cited above, many of those States expressed their interest in shifting the debate from a rhetorical discussion about the R2P principle in general, to an action-oriented discussion about what can be done to stop atrocities in their tracks. 

As Ambassador Fiona Webster of Australia recently observed, “there is a growing political will for more concrete discussion about what States can actually do, domestically and in their foreign policy, to better protect people from heinous crimes.” This support is further attested to by the fact that in 2021 the General Assembly decided by an overwhelming  majority of 115 to 15 (with 28 abstentions) to formally place the R2P on its agenda, and to formalize annual reporting from the Secretary-General on the R2P. This request for annual reports, together with the placement of the R2P on the General Assembly’s annual agenda – which is in effect a commitment to meet every year and discuss the Secretary-General’s report – reflects a renewed, strengthened and ongoing commitment on the part of the General Assembly to the R2P. 

So, there is widespread interest from States in seeing the international community work together to more effectively protect populations from atrocity crimes. Currently, however, this is not robustly supported by the U.N. system. 

There are many issues that together amount to an overwhelming lack of institutional support for the R2P within the U.N. These include: the lack of an operational U.N. strategy or workplan for the R2P; the abstract nature of the Secretary-General’s annual reports on the R2P, devoid of any comment or recommendations regarding actual atrocities; and the tenuous position of the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the R2P. All these concerns require consideration; however, the recent resignation of the outgoing Special Advisor makes the need for stronger support for the R2P mandate holder an immediate priority. 

The Role of the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the R2P

Within the U.N. system, the institutional home for the R2P is the Joint Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. One might imagine (and hope) that in the Joint Office, the mandates of genocide prevention and the R2P would work together in a mutually reinforcing manner towards the same goal – ending mass atrocities once and for all. In fact, as Okoth-Obbo has shared with me in conversation the R2P is “viewed with reticence as a spoiler, which, because of the contestations which accompany it, undermines political and budgetary support for the genocide prevention mandate.” The genocide prevention mandate is less contested than the R2P, because, at least as currently interpreted, it is concerned mainly with addressing known precursors to genocide such as hate speech, ostracization, and incitement to violence (see here, for example), and not – in contrast to its difficult cousin – any obligation on the part of States to respond to genocide when it occurs or is imminent.

The R2P is, moreover, not only the difficult but also the poor cousin within the Joint Office. The Joint Office is headed by the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, which is a full-time position at the level of Under-Secretary-General. The Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide reports directly to the Secretary-General, and is a member of the U.N. Senior Management Group. By contrast, the Special Advisor on the R2P is a part-time, unpaid position at the level of Assistant Secretary-General. The Special Advisor on the R2P reports to the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide. The R2P mandate holder has no dedicated staff, no budget, no financial support even to be based in New York – three of the four previous Special Advisors have been located elsewhere – and no authority to formally engage with the representatives of States who are committing atrocities or planning to do so. 

The position of Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on the R2P was originally established by the Secretary-General in 2007 to “advanc[e] the conceptual, political and institutional development and further refinement of the principle.” The Secretary-General explained at that time that the nature of the mandate reflected the “fledgling nature of agreement” on the R2P. In 2016, the first Special Advisor on R2P, Edward Luck, explained that it was “assumed that initially there would be greater emphasis on the normative than operational aspects of R2P,” and that “over time successive Special Advisors could be expected to apply increasingly large portions of their time and effort to the operational side.” Such assumptions notwithstanding, the role of the R2P Special Advisor has never been redefined to allow for a more operational focus. 

The implications of this were highlighted in February, when Special Advisor Okoth-Obbo visited Jakarta and held a series of high-level meetings with stakeholders from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Indonesian government. It was the only “field mission” – actually engaging with States and a regional organization, outside the U.N. offices in New York or Geneva – the Special Advisor was able to conduct during his term, and it was only possible because it was organized, hosted, and paid for by the Asia Pacific Centre for the R2P at the University of Queensland. In high-level meetings, the Special Advisor found himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to convey key messages – on atrocities in Myanmar, for example, and his hopes for Indonesia as ASEAN Chair – while simultaneously conveying that his position was not mandated to address the actual commission of atrocity crimes, and that therefore he was not authorized to speak for the U.N. Secretary-General or indeed the U.N. more broadly on any such situations. 

Okoth-Obbo’s experience mirrors that of Šimonović, who also previously held the position of Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights. In 2020, Šimonović reflected that: 

The paradox is that while I was very much involved in the operational side of atrocity crimes prevention diplomacy … when I was the [Assistant Secretary-General] for Human Rights, I was prevented from doing the same when I became Special Advisor on R2P. Not that I did not want to do it, but the position lacked an operational mandate, with its focus on the conceptual and political development of R2P.

Šimonović has since called for the R2P Special Advisor to be given a “much more operational role.”

Strengthening the R2P Mandate Going Forward

The resignation of the R2P Special Advisor must be a wake-up call. At the recent launch of the R2P Framework for Action, Savita Pawnday, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the R2P, echoed the appeal made by Šimonović, cited above, saying that “as the R2P community, we have to question why is it that R2P Special Advisors sometimes are unable to function in the way they would have liked.” Such calls are not new, and former Special Advisors – along with some others – have proposed what changes need to be made. In 2019, for example, Šimonović argued that “whoever oversees coordination of operational activities aimed at the prevention of atrocity crimes must have an adequate rank (for example, Under-Secretary-General) and full access to the Secretary-General and operational decision-making fora.” In the General Assembly’s most recent debate on the R2P, Australia’s representative said more diplomatically but pointedly that Australia supports the “dual mandate” of the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention and the R2P, and “emphasize[d] the need to equally advance both genocide prevention and R2P” (emphasis in original). Okoth-Obbo, for his part, argues that the Special Advisor’s mandate should be “most crucially geared” towards the “implementation of R2P.”

Despite clear political will among States to step-up coordinated, international efforts to protect populations from atrocity crimes, such efforts are unlikely to advance without a suitably empowered senior U.N. official at the helm. That senior official should be paid, be full-time, have staff, and have access to and the support of the Secretary-General. And most importantly, that senior official should be formally mandated not just to advance the conceptual development of the R2P as a political principle, but to proactively and diplomatically engage with the perpetrators and would-be perpetrators of atrocity crimes, and all those that have the power to influence them.  

(Quotes provided without linked references draw on conversations with the author. All quotes have been included with permission.)

IMAGE: Flags of different countries (Photo via Getty Images)