An Emerging Norm – Determining the Meaning and Legal Status of the Responsibility to Protect

The responsibility to protect, from its recent nativity in the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), is the latest round in an old debate pitting the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of states against allowing such intervention to prevent gross and systematic violations of human rights. Advocates for the concept see it as an important new commitment by the international community, injecting new meaning into the tragically threadbare promise to never again allow mass atrocities to occur unchallenged. ICISS offered the concept of responsibility to protect as a new way to confront these calamities that addressed the concerns of some nations that humanitarian intervention was merely a license to invade. This idea made its way in four short years from the 2001 ICISS Report into the 2005 Summit Outcome Document (Summit Outcome), unanimously adopted by the Sixtieth Session of the U.N. General Assembly. A frequently repeated phrase in the commentary on responsibility to protect is that it is an “emerging norm,” representing the coalescence of a new international consensus around the duties and powers of the international community in confronting massive human rights violations. While many advocates and commentators have been cautious on this subject, one interpretation is that, as an “emerging norm,” responsibility to protect is somewhere on the path to becoming customary international law. “[W]ith the weight behind it of a unanimous General Assembly resolution at head of state and government level, the responsibility to protect can already be properly described as a new international norm: a new standard of behavior . . . for every state.”