This article was part of a roundtable series that was originally published in June 2019 by the Beirut School of Critical Studies working group in the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. It has been republished by Security in Context in October 2023. For access to all the roundtable articles, please visit this link:


By Coralie Pison Hindawi[1]

The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (often shortened R2P), endorsed unanimously by UN member states during the 2005 World Summit, concerns itself with mass atrocities. It enounces that people throughout the world should be protected from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and that, when national authorities are unable or unwilling to protect their populations from such crimes, the responsibility to protect falls upon the ‘international community.’ [2]

Many critical and postcolonial thinkers dismiss the R2P doctrine as a Western tool designed to justify interventionist policies in the Global South. Yet, as Amitav Acharya has argued, the doctrine emerged and evolved thanks to substantial Southern influences and involvement.[3] If we acknowledge this Southern role and follow Siba Grovogui’s assertion that the ‘West’ does not own R2P,[4] we may come to appreciate that the R2P doctrine’s significance and potential are by all means much broader than some more narrow interpretations would suggest.

Innumerable reports and legal analyses document the commission of war crimes as well as grave violations of human rights in Palestine that, according notably to the 2009 Goldstone report or the 2019 Human Rights Council report on the Israeli response to the Palestinian ‘Great March of Return’, may amount to crimes against humanity.[5] Furthermore, an increasing number of scholars argue that the decades-long process of violently dispossessing Palestinians from their land and from their most basic means of living amounts to ethnic cleansing[6] or even genocide.[7] With national authorities (Israeli and Palestinian) respectively unwilling and unable to offer protection to a population of which children represent 45%, it would seem that the situation in Palestine ticks most if not all of the R2P boxes. Yet while the academic literature on R2P has been booming for the past decade, the pieces exploring the doctrine’s applicability to the situation in Palestine are remarkably few. During the Israeli military operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, some R2P specialists even tried to argue that R2P did not apply to the situation, regardless of the crimes committed, given the international nature of the conflict.[8] While it was not difficult to prove them wrong,[9] such attitude exemplifies the typical efforts at shielding Israel from the legal and political consequences of its policies against Palestinians, regardless of their violence and against all the evidence.

As Palestinians are about to commemorate the Nakba’s seventy-first anniversary with no end in sight[10] and amidst particularly violent Israeli reactions to the ongoing Great March of Return, nine scholars from various disciplines and backgrounds discuss in this virtual roundtable the applicability, usefulness (or lack thereof) and overall significance of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine for Palestine.

In Shoot to Maim: The Harvesting of Palestinian Bodies, Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who has been working ‘with the injuries inflicted by the Israeli war machine on the bodies of Palestinians’ for 30 years, reflects on these ‘politics of injuring,’ seeking to understand why Israel would ‘intentionally maim, with great accuracy using snipers, 6,500 young economically productive Palestinians?’ Highlighting the differences between South African apartheid, where black African labor was vital for the system, and Zionism, which  never needed Palestinian labor, and building upon Jasbir Paur’s The Right to Maim, Abu-Sittah exposes the Israeli practice of intentionally maiming young Palestinians – in their overwhelming majority unarmed (UNHRC report 2019) – for what it is: what is presented as a humanitarian practice of not killing ‘is in fact a deliberate policy of leaving many civilians “permanently disabled” in an occupied territory of destroyed hospitals, rationed medical supplies, and scare resources.’ Cruelty aside, the intentional mutilation not only aims to subjugate Palestinians and reinforce the humanitarian framework within which Gaza is seen by the world. It also is ‘a method of generating profit, not through the labor of Palestinian bodies but through the harvesting of these very bodies by creating a cyclical humanitarian crisis in order to reap 78% of all humanitarian aid intended for its victims.’

In Environmental Justice in Palestine: Rights of Natives to their Environment versus Colonial Onslaught, Mazin Qumsiyeh, founder of the Palestine Museum of Natural History and of the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability at Bethlehem University, focuses on environmental injustice in the context of occupation and grabbing of land and resources. The picture he presents, on the basis of decades long research and advocacy, is that of breathtaking disparity in access to territory and resources between two populations that are approximately similar in size. With this piece, Qumsiyeh reminds us of the – largely overlooked –  environmental dimension of the occupation, and of its severe impact on plants, animals and ecosystems in general. He contends that ‘environmental justice is key to peacemaking.’ In seeking environmental justice, Qumsiyeh points to the role that could/ought to be played by outside actors: the conflict ‘originally derived from international sources and for most of its history was internationalized [...]. It must therefore be brought to an end through an international effort that returns dignity and sovereignty to the local people.’ One of the questions raised in Qumsieyh’s contribution is thus that of foreign responsibility for the Palestinian plight. This question is precisely what lies at the heart of the R2P doctrine.

The concept, as Irene Gendzier from Boston University recaps in R2P-R2K, The Responsibility to Protect and the Right to Know, was first coined in the 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), a Canadian initiative. However, while this earlier version of R2P suggested that in dire situations of state failure to stop mass atrocities, military intervention, even without approval of the UN Security Council (UNSC), might be justified, it was a narrower version of the initial proposal that was endorsed by UN member states in the 2005 World Summit. The 2005 version of the doctrine emphasized notably that states have to ‘act through the Security Council in accord with the UN Charter.’ Since then, the R2P doctrine has been invoked on multiple occasions. Yet, as Gendzier remarks, such invocations and statements are insufficient to assess the doctrine’s ‘impact, its violations, or the cost of its selective application.’ This selectivity, several contributors contend, is particularly obvious in the Palestinian case. Since the adoption of the R2P doctrine, serious concerns have been expressed following each violent Israeli operation in Gaza, and a plethora of authoritative reports leave little doubt that, to borrow Richard Falk’s (Princeton, UCSB, former UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine) words in R2P and the Palestinian Ordeal, ‘Israel has persistently and flagrantly committed three of the four crimes specified in the [2005] Outcome Document as triggers for the application of R2P.’ Falk therefore argues that ‘from legalistic and ethical perspectives, R2P should have been invoked and applied to alleviate and terminate Palestinian victimization [...],’ yet ‘the silence surrounding R2P when it comes to its application with respect to Israel’ is deafening.

This, of course, is the outcome of the ‘geopolitical veto,’ in Falk’s words, that ‘blocks any foreseeable application of the R2P mechanism by the Security Council to alleviate the Palestinian ordeal.’ Focusing on the specifics of the R2P doctrine, one may think about alternative ways to allow it to circumvent its political and geopolitical limitations. Falk considers notably the role that the UN General Assembly could play as the bearer of ‘a residual responsibility to act coercively even when the Security Council is blocked.’ At the same time, it seems to him ‘obvious that neither the inter-governmental diplomacy within an Oslo-type framework nor the UN can fulfill the expectations of a robust implementation of R2P’ in the Palestinian case.

A similar observation leads other contributors to declare the absolute uselessness of the R2P doctrine for Palestinians. Going back to the Libyan case, Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, focuses in All Member States on the implicit yet pervasive role of the United States and its NATO allies in the implementation of the doctrine to argue that, regardless of its abstract value, R2P is ‘in concrete terms [...] merely an instrument of Western power.’ In Prashad’s view, ‘to believe that R2P can be harnessed to the cause of the Palestinians is illusionary. The doctrine of R2P needs to be withdrawn.’ In Obscuring the Responsibility to Protect, David Palumbo-Liu’s (Stanford University) reflections on the connection between power and responsibility reach a comparable conclusion. For Palumbo-Liu, the combination of Israeli, Palestinian, UN and international leaderships’ failure to protect Palestinians demonstrates that ‘the idea of R2P is [...] bankrupt in the face of the political realities of Palestine.’ In his view, ‘where there is no will to enforce R2P, it is simply a dead letter at best and an obstacle to justice at worse.’

But even the harshest dismissals of the R2P doctrine do not exhaust the subject. First, because the decades long abuse of Palestinians’ most basic rights cannot possibly be allowed to continue unabated. Second, because, as Siba Grovogui (Cornell University) maintains in Protecting Palestinians: Postcolonial Reminiscences, the responsibility to protect Palestinians is much older and broader than the R2P doctrine. Also, more than bearing responsibility on account of its inaction, the primary responsibility of the UN derives from the active decision it took to partition the land in 1947 while failing for over seven decades to keep its historical commitment to a state for Palestinians. As for ‘the West,’ its ‘greatest abdication’ is not so much its neglect to protect refugees and non-combatants than the outrageous way in which it has promoted the rights of the occupying power over the former, in violation of the most basic humanitarian principles. Grovogui also explores the particular role of the sponsors of the 1993 Oslo Accords and of the United States, which has been systematically using its veto power – both the veto proper, and the ‘double veto’ – to even prevent inquiries from being conducted into Israel’s behavior in the occupied territories.

In his analysis, Grovogui uncovers a number of erroneous assumptions upon which the R2P doctrine is based. He criticizes in particular the ‘central moral dualism’ of a doctrine that assumes that those expected to embody the ‘international community’ to deliver protection – Prashad’s ‘all member states’ – are ‘never responsible for the plight of those in need of deliverance.’ Overall, assumptions of ‘good faith and innocence from the supposed moral custodian of the international community’ nurture all sorts of confusions in the imaginary and practice of the R2P doctrine. Yet, these confusions notwithstanding, Grovogui insists that a large number of actors hold specific obligations towards Palestinians, and he concludes by arguing that as long as these actors fail to provide the protection they owe to Palestinians, ‘it behooves the rest of the world, on behalf of our own humanity, to consider our obligation to the Palestinians under and beyond R2P.’

Grovogui’s use of the notion of a ‘world community’ to depict something else than the ‘formal community assembled under and as international community,’ resonates with other contributions, such as Palumbo-Liu’s or Falk’s. Both look to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement as one of the greatest sources of hope for Palestinians. According to Falk, ‘the only path to ending current patterns of criminal victimization is by a combination of Palestinian national resistance and global solidarity initiatives [...], which ‘could benefit from an invocation of the R2P ethos.’ Gendzier looks more particularly into the potential for an informed and engaged public to push for a shift in US policies. But whether we’re looking at international or national civil society actors, the most striking feature in our case is surely the fact that the actors honoring their responsibility to protect Palestinians are not those with the greatest leverage on the international scene or the greatest historical responsibility, but rather actors that derive their alternative form of power from solidarity, as Palumbo-Liu remarks.

Last but not least, Ilan Pappe’s (University of Exeter) Historical R2P: Britain’s Special Accountability combines past responsibilities (with a focus on Britain’s) with possible futures. Considering that ‘the division of the land is not the outstanding issue, but rather the 71 year-old denial of normal and equal rights to the Palestinians,’ Pappe reminds us that, for all the suffering, destruction and frustration over the unwillingness of various external actors to act upon their very tangible legal and moral obligations towards Palestinians, future prospects are remarkably straightforward. Israeli appetite for territory and control – bolstered by the seemingly unconditional support that the country has been benefitting from – has killed the ‘two states option,’ leaving only one realistic option in the long run: that of a single democratic State where Palestinians and Israelis will enjoy equal rights. The only uncertainty here pertains to the amount of time – and with it, additional abuse and suffering – that reaching this ineluctable state will require. It is probably at this level that international responsibilities are now the greatest. Yet what most contributions point to is that one cannot and should not disentangle present and future responsibilities from past ones. The responsibility of both the international community and a broader world community to stand with Palestinians and ensure that their abuse stops is intrinsically connected with the role that multiple nations, within and beyond the UN framework, have played in the creation and perpetuation of the Palestinian ordeal.

Coralie Pison Hindawi is a researcher and teacher based in France. For many years, she worked at the American University of Beirut as an assistant, then associate professor. Her research has focused on the use of coercion in the Middle Eastern context, notably in the field of disarmament, as well as on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. She has notably explored the individual dimension of the doctrine, analyzed with colleagues its relevance for the situation in Palestine, and proposed several concrete steps to decolonize the doctrine. She is part of the SALAM (Sustaining Alternative Links beyond Arms and the Military) project within the PRISME initiative.

In addition to her book on Iraq and chapters in edited volumes (Oxford Handbook on the Responsibility to Protect, The United Nations and the Arab World), her recent work has been published in Alternatives, Critical Studies on Security, Global Governance, Journal for Conflict and Security Law, Security Dialogue and Third World Quarterly.


[1] I would like to extent my warmest thanks to the contributors to this virtual roundtable, as well as all those, who helped with this project, in particular Omar Dahi, Timothy Eddy, Claire O’Brien, and MK Smith, as well as the colleagues from the Beirut School. This project benefited from the support of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences.

[2] 2005 World Summit Outcome, A/RES/60/124, October 2005, par. 138-139.

[3] Amitav Acharya (2016) ‘Idea-shift’: how ideas from the rest are reshaping global order. Third World Quarterly 37(7): 1156-1170.

[4] Siba Grovogui (2012) The Responsibility to Protect: An Unconventional History of Postwar Interventions, Lecture held at the American University of Beirut, May 17.

[5] United Nations Human Rights Council (2009) Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, A/HRC/12/48, notably par. 1936; United Nations Human Rights Council (2019) Report of the detailed findings of the independent international Commission of inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, 18 March 2019, A/HRC/40/CRP.2, notably Summary: 2.

[6] Ilan Pappe (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld Publications, Oxford).

[7] See for example numerous contributions to William Cook (ed.) (2010) Plight of the Palestinian. A Long History of Destructions. Palgrave Macmillan: New York; Martin Shaw and Omer Bartov (2010) ‘The question of genocide in Palestine, 1948: an exchange between Martin Shaw and Omer Bartov,’ Journal of Genocide Research 12:3/4: 243-59 or Center for Constitutional Rights (2016) The Genocide of the Palestinian People: An International Law and Human Rights Perspective, 25 August.

[8] See Palestine, Israel and R2P: A Symposium, LSE Middle East Center Blog.

[9] Coralie Pison Hindawi (2014) ‘R2P in Gaza: A Long Overdue Debate,’ e-IR,

[10] Joseph Massad (2018) ‘The future of the Nakba,’ The Electronic Intifada, 13 May.

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Oct 30, 2023
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