The EU and the Responsibility to Protect in an Illiberal Era

The 2005 United Nations agreement on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) populations from atrocities was intended to set acceptable boundaries to ‘humanitarian intervention’, but it is still extremely controversial and vulnerable in a world of increasing nationalism and illiberalism.

Can the European Union help to ‘rescue’ R2P? In this paper, Karen Smith analyses how the EU has responded in three mass atrocity situations: Central African Republic (2012–14); the treatment of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar (2017–), and inter-ethnic violence in South Sudan (2016–). The cases reveal a number of weaknesses in EU responses: it responds to mass atrocities only after violence has seriously escalated, and the use of force to protect populations is still a step too far for many EU member states.

The EU still lacks institutional mechanisms that incorporate mass atrocity prevention in its policymaking processes, but its responses more tellingly reveal the lack of commitment to making mass atrocity prevention a priority. The paper sets out several steps the EU could take to strengthen its capacity to prevent mass atrocities, if the member states could agree to do so. Yet ultimately, if the UN Security Council and other regional organisations are not willing to take action in response to mass atrocities, the EU on its own will have little influence.

Download the full paper here.

Keywords: European Union; mass atrocities; responsibility to protect; Central African Republic; Myanmar; Rohingya; South Sudan