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:

What can R2P mean in a period when the most powerful state in the world is one that violates international law with impunity, as in the decision by the U.S. President on March 25, 2019 to legitimize Israel's control over the Occupied Golan Heights?[1]

At the least, the above action does not demonstrate the futility of international law but

its susceptibility to management and control by those powerful enough to override its constraints to suit their interests. In the above instance this means the legitimation of the acquisition of territory by force, whose prohibition goes back at least to World War II.

What, then, does it mean to endorse R2P in Palestine/Gaza in this context? Who has the power to enforce the Responsibility to Protect in an environment defined by Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?

In 1993, Mohamed Sahnoun, former Algerian diplomat, then a fellow at the International Development and Research Center in Ottawa, was interviewed by Joe Stork, editor of MERIP (Middle East Research and Information Project), in a special issue on the subject of intervention. The resulting exchange is of interest given Sahnoun's later role as co-author with the former Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, of the 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, known as The Responsibility to Protect, a product of the International Commission convened by the Canadian government.[2] The 2001 Report   emphasized the state's responsibility to protect its citizens, as well as the response to its limitations and/or failures in this regard. In this, it sought to align itself with existing UN resolutions. But this was only a part of the R2P position that came to be identified with the Sahnoun-Evans Report. Its controversial dimension was its identification with humanitarian intervention or, more precisely, military intervention undertaken without Security Council approval.

Sahnoun had served as special UN representative in Somalia before US intervention and he served in the Congo as Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity in 1993. Described by his interviewer as ‘a practitioner of intervention,’ Sahnoun maintained that ‘sovereignty is not really something which should inhibit intervention for humanitarian reasons, whether it is to resolve a conflict through good offices, through preventive policies, or to come to the rescue of a population victimized either by natural catastrophe or repressive government policies.’[3] Although Sahnoun insisted in his 1993 interview on the primacy of diplomatic intervention, Sahnoun and Evans were to argue in their 2001 Report that when state failure to protect its citizens in dire situations was undeniable and unacceptable, military intervention might be justified. But the critical refrain was that such intervention could take place without the approval of the UN Security Council (UNSC), if the Council failed to respond and/or responded to such applications with excessive delay.

For this, there was no precedent in United Nations resolutions. There was an ample record, however, of measures recommended by the United Nations and international organizations in order to allay the merciless plunder of humanity that resulted from war in the 20th and 21st centuries. Outstanding examples were to be found in the 1945 UN Charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Genocide Convention of the same year; the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the laws of war; UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 1653 of 1961 on the prohibition of nuclear warfare; and related UNGA resolutions relevant to the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological warfare, that attest to the ideals of an international community devoid neither of conscience nor conviction.

To cite the above is not to harbor any illusions about the violations of such resolutions and their consequences, as the cases of Kosovo, Darfur, the Congo, East Timor, Iraq and Libya indicate.[4]  The application of Chapter VII of the UN Charter to Iraq in the wake of the Iraq attack against Kuwait in 1990, which led to the passage of UNSC Res 687, was an example whose coercive features decimated the state, its territory and the lives of its citizens before the US invasion of 2003.[5]

The states of the Global South, historically the victims of aggression often justified in terms of protection, were clear in their opposition to ‘the so-called “right” of humanitarian intervention, which has no legal basis in the United Nations Charter or in the general principles of international law,’ as the South Summit Declaration stated in the Havana conference of April 2000.[6] Such opposition, which merited little attention among those with the power to protect,   raised questions as to who determined and how they determined, which cases justified intervention. Those questions remain. A careful reading of the historical record, as Noam Chomsky starkly stated in his July 23, 2009 UN presentation on ‘The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention,’ leaves little room for illusions about the answers to those questions.[7]

The principle of the Responsibility to Protect was endorsed in the extraordinary World Summit Outcome Document of the Plenary session of the General Assembly of September 2005 (A/Res/60/1). Articles 138 and 139 of this Document declared that states have the responsibility to protect citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and – importantly – to act through the Security Council in accord with the UN Charter, as in Chapter VII. The 2009 Report of the Secretary General (A/63/6777) reiterated these responsibilities, once again emphasizing the role of the Security Council.

In July 2015, the comprehensive UNGA and Security Council Report of the Secretary-General (A/69/981-S/2015/500, July 13, 2015) in its vast overview confirmed that there had been some 30 resolutions and six presidential statements on the subject of R2P, as well as additional meetings held by the Human Rights Council, Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide, and those convened at regional levels, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. Although such texts attest to a broad recognition of the R2P principle, they are insufficient to assess its impact, its violations, or the cost of its selective application. The above Report, for example, included recognition that ‘the conflicts in Yemen and the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the Gaza Strip have generated high numbers of civilian casualties, raising concern about the indiscriminate use of force by all parties and the possible commission of war crimes.’ The Report, however, failed to explain why these cases had not generated support for the application of R2P.

In July 2009, the UN International Meeting on the Question of Palestine focused on the ‘Responsibility of the international community to uphold international humanitarian law to ensure the protection of civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory in the wake of the war in Gaza.’ Several months later, the Goldstone Report,[8] named after Justice Richard Goldstone, Head of the Mission and former judge of the South African Constitutional Court, investigated Israel's role in the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza and confirmed what other sources had previously demonstrated with respect to Israel's violations of international law. The Report recommended that the case be brought to the UNSC and that the Security Council, in turn, determine whether conditions warranted it being brought to the International Criminal Court. The importance of the Goldstone Report, separate from its fate and that of Judge Goldstone, has only been reinforced by subsequent Israeli policies in Gaza.

Nearly a decade later, the problems investigated in the Goldstone Report remain, as do the factors blocking accountability through the venue of the United Nations and the Security Council, where the U.S. continues to dominate and effectively block measures critical of Israel.

Barring an immediate change in the membership and operations of the Security Council, it is worth considering the potential of a shift in the direction of US policy animated by an engaged public and its representatives. The underlying assumption in this suggestion is that the mobilization of an informed public has the capacity to influence domestic as well as foreign policy. Such an effort requires a public committed to examining and confronting the formation of US policy, its domestic and foreign policy connections and its implications for U.S. policy in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  

The response in the form of mass demonstrations that have reached global proportions in the aftermath of the events of Oct 7th 2023 reflects an unprecedented level of international solidarity and an accompanying expression of the responsibility to protect those affected. Those so engaged, including grassroots activists and progressive political forces among them, are part of a struggle that holds promise for the mobilization of an informed public committed to the principles of the Responsibility to Protect and its application to Palestine and Gaza.

Irene Gendzier is Professor (Emeritus) in the Department of Political Science at Boston University, and Affiliate in Research at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. Her publications include Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study (1973, 1974, 1985); Development Against Democracy: Manipulating Political Change in the Third World (1985; new edition, 2017); Notes From the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945-1958 (1997, 1999, 2006); Crimes of War: Iraq, edited by Richard Falk, Irene Gendzier and Robert Jay Lifton (2006);  Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine and the Foundations of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East (2015; 2017).


[1] BBC News, ‘Golan Heights: Trump signs order recognising occupied area as Israeli,’ 25 March 2019.

[2] See Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001 (; see also, Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington, D.C.: Brooklings Institution Press, 2008).

[3] An Interview with Mohamed Sahnoun, ‘It's difficult to point to a situation where armed intervention represented a solution,’ MERIP 187/188,28.

[4] See Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, Lessons From Kosovo, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine, 1999; Richard A. Falk, The Costs of War, International Law, the UN, and World Order After Iraq, New York, Routledge, 2008;  Edward S Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2010; Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad, eds., Land of Blue Helmets, The United Nations and the Arab World, The University of California Press, 2017; Mahmood Mamdani, ‘Responsibility to Protect or Right to Punish?’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 4:1, 53-67;  Hugh Roberts, ‘Who said Gaddafi had to go?’, London Review of Books 33: 22, 17 Nov. 2011, 8-18.

[5] See the work of Coralie Pison Hindawi, Vingt ans dans L'ombre du chapitre Vll, Eclairage sur deux décennies de coercition à l'encontre de l'Iraq. L'Harmattan, Paris, 2013.

[6] April 10-14, Havana, Cuba, Declaration of the South Summit, Group of 77 South Summit (item 54) (

[7] July 23, 2009, Noam Chomsky on ‘The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention,’ UN General Assembly. www.unorg/ga/president/63/interactive/protect/noam.pdf

[8] Mission.htm

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Oct 30, 2023
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