The European Union and the Responsibility to Protect


The EU’s support for R2P

The EU’s engagement with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – a principle agreed by UN members in 2005 to prevent and respond to atrocities – reflects a surprisingly mixed record in some respects. The slow pace and, at times, ambivalence with which the EU has explicitly embraced R2P, in spite of the support of key individual members, reflects political disagreements about R2P in national capitals and bureaucratic reluctance in Brussels.

However, in recent years the EU appears to have finally shifted its substantial resources behind R2P. In 2013 the European Parliament launched a major initiative to consolidate and operationalize the EU’s support for R2P and to formulate a ‘European consensus’ on the issue. In 2016 the EU appointed an R2P Focal Point to coordinate its activities in this area – the first regional organization to do so. The European External Action Service officially launched its ‘Toolkit for Atrocity Prevention’ in January 2019, designed to coordinate European responses to atrocities in a proactive and coherent manner. EU members also represent an active group of national R2P Focal Points.

The EU has actively contributed to UN General Assembly Interactive Dialogues, and EU members have also provided input into the Annual Reports of the UN Secretary-General on the topic. Furthermore, the EU Delegation to the UN has actively participated in the activities and meetings of the ‘Group of Friends of R2P’ in New York, a group of state supporters of R2P, whose co-chair has always been a European country. All this has helped to promote the R2P label in diplomatic circles and strengthen its normative traction.


R2P and the EU’s global role

Photo credit: The Hague Institute for Global Justice, 3 October 2016










These initiatives have taken place in parallel with broader efforts to project a more active global role for the EU in conflict resolution, security, and normative leadership. As the EU High Representative stated in December 2018, ‘The Responsibility to Protect is a principle that the EU has integrated in its policies and we are closely working together with international partners, in particular with the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, and civil society organisations, to end impunity…and to establish effective prevention schemes’.


Remaining constraints on the EU’s international normative role

However, doubts have lingered about the EU’s capacity and willingness to internalise R2P. Despite the European Parliament’s call in 2013 for consensus and coordination across the EU on R2P, a significant EU attempt to implement R2P in this sense has been slow to materialize. The EU’s recent activism – at least in terms of its internal bureaucratic organisation and declarations – therefore raises a number of questions. Can the EU be a global leader in championing R2P, at a time when the EU’s normative authority is arguably in decline, and when international order is apparently shifting against liberal norms? How will the EU’s commitment to R2P weigh against its geopolitical and economic interests?


The EU’s normative leadership in a changing global order

These questions are linked to the transitional international order. Rising powers have increasingly resisted key aspects of the liberal international order and openly contest norms such as R2P. This reflects a normative tension, and in particular a resurgence of conservative interpretations of state sovereignty, and also the perception amongst some states that norms related to civilian protection are a pretext for Western attempts to maintain hegemony.

While non-Western contestation has increased, international cooperation around liberal values and norms has been problematized by an apparent rise in nationalism and populism within the traditional sponsors of international order. The Western allies, formerly close partners in supporting liberal institutions and multilateralism generally, are fragmenting as a cohesive bloc.

The President of the European Commission portrayed the EU as being ‘in an existential crisis’ in 2016, and the latest EU Global Strategy similarly observed in the same year that ‘We live in times of existential crisis, within and beyond the European Union. Our Union is under threat.’ This raises questions about the EU’s capacity to provide normative leadership in support of R2P on the global stage, and points to a more instrumentalist, strategic approach to tackling global challenges, rather than one driven by liberal normative commitments.


Internal European contestation

In addition to the global normative contestation in relation to R2P – which problematizes the EU’s engagement with the principle – there is also evidence of normative contestation within Europe. Divisions remain across and within EU members regarding the scope and operationalization of R2P, in particular regarding the role of military force in preventing or stopping egregious human rights violations.

The EU has also been slow to internalize R2P into external action machinery. In addition, the EU’s credibility in terms of its leadership in promoting humanitarian values can be questioned in relation to ‘internal’ standards and practices. Minority rights, attitudes towards hate crimes and incitement, and policies towards people fleeing human rights abuse have all raised questions about Europe’s commitment to humanitarianism, or even accusations of double standards. As a result, Europe’s standing as a credible normative actor in relation to R2P is potentially in tension with – or even undermined by – the policies or standards of justice within some European countries.


The EU’s vital work in support of R2P

Nevertheless, the EU’s operational role in engaging with R2P is vital to keeping the principle alive as a policy framework. The EU has enormous capacity in atrocity prevention when it aligns its considerable resources and policy programmes in support of R2P. In supporting programmes aimed at strengthening responsible governance, human rights, the rule of law, and conflict prevention, the EU has the potential for real impact in preventing the conditions which may result in egregious human rights abuses.

Its Atrocity Prevention Toolkit also demonstrates the EU’s concrete commitment to strengthening early warning methodologies which have the potential to be world-leading. The steps that it has taken to engage with R2P demonstrate a commitment to coordinate EU activities around a shared set of goals in support of atrocity prevention. Further progress in this regard depends upon R2P being embraced not only by EU officials, but also by political leaders in member states. In addition, further progress in terms of policy coherence across the broad range of programmes and activities of the EU is important if the EU is to be fully integrated into the R2P agenda.


Can the EU save R2P?

However, irrespective of this internal progress, the promotion of the R2P framework as a norm remains problematic in global perspective. And so, while the R2P norm needs renewed leadership to survive, it is doubtful that this will come from the EU. Even if the problem of political will in Europe could be overcome in support of a more decisive approach to atrocity prevention, it is unlikely that this would gain greater traction internationally as long as the international political climate remains inhospitable to emerging human rights norms.

If the EU’s engagement with R2P is a test of its normative leadership – its ability to shape international politics as a result of its constitutive values – then the prognosis is not encouraging, in the context of both internal and external political challenges to its authority. This points to constraints on the norm, while also contributing to the ongoing critique of the ‘Normative Power Europe’ concept both in theory and in practice. The prioritization of hard economic and security interests, and the desire to avoid political conflict with strategic partners, allies and adversaries, mean that norms such as the R2P have become something of a luxury, especially for national actors if not for EU officials. And from the external perspective, the persuasiveness of the EU as a normative actor is in doubt within this transitional international order in which liberal internationalism is in retreat.

This blog post draws on Edward Newman and Cristina G. Stefan, ‘Normative Power Europe? The EU’s Embrace of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in a Transitional International Order’, published in JCMS



Edward Newman is a Professor of International Security in the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds.



Cristina G. Stefan is an Associate Professor of International Relations in POLIS, University of Leeds, and the Co-Director of the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P).’