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This article has been written by Arushi Dokania.


The concept of security has traditionally been thought of in terms of interstate wars and the resulting “right to intervene” for maintaining peace and order. This theory of security spawned ideas such as collective security and humanitarian involvement, both of which are predicated on the premise that war is likely and shall be stopped or prevented. These ideas have traditionally been used to describe threats that can be met with force.

The legitimacy and legality of using such force, particularly due to the existence of power imbalances in the international arena, gave rise to the emergence of the “Responsibility to Protect” (hereinafter referred to as RtoP), which changed the emphasis from the “right to intervene” to RtoP or “right to protect”. 

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The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) and the High-Level Panel on Threats, Security and Change (HLP) presented the above idea to the United Nations (UN), and it was supported by all UN members at the World Summit 2005. Despite the fact that six “clusters of threats” were identified by the HLP report and it had emphasised the importance of ensuring protection for all of them, the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document watered down or ignored most of its recommendations.

Therefore, RtoP and the states who have given their assent to it remain a debated topic. Although the primary and secondary obligations of States have been mentioned under RtoP’s three pillars, namely, “the responsibility of each State to protect its populations (pillar I); the duty of the international community to assist States in protecting their populations (pillar II); and the responsibility of the international community to protect when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations (pillar III)”. However, this principle’s application has been restricted to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

Rising demand to expand the scope of RtoP

Although protection from the above listed mass atrocity crimes is critical, there has been a push to expand the scope of the RtoP to include other global challenges like mass starvation, health issues that affect globally and climate change. This demand has become even more pressing in light of the recent upsurge in vaccine nationalism.

Since the number of COVID-19 cases is growing, all countries are prioritising the development of vaccines and its acquisition. As we have witnessed that all the powerful countries have claimed vaccines from the biopharmaceuticals they endorse, a transition from an inclusive and collective global policy to one driven by nationalist agendas and likely to disadvantage the poorer nations can be seen.

Furthermore, in this rat race, nations are wary of foreign firms acquiring companies in their own countries. The United Nations Security Council has already been prevented from playing an active role in ensuring global human security due to the upsurge of tensions between the United States and China, and the resurgence of vaccine nationalism would only exacerbate the issues that the Global South face. 

Although the G7 and the European Commission-backed access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator have worked to ensure that vaccines are distributed fairly, big pharmaceutical powers like India, United States and China have hardly contributed to these efforts. The concerns that emerge as a result are whether such countries have a responsibility to safeguard global health issues and whether RtoP can be expanded to include within its scope “soft security” threats as well. To implement this, it is vital to rethink the initial approach of RtoP as well as the debates over its reach.

Theoretical possibility of widening the scope of RtoP

As previously mentioned, the 2001 ICISS Report described RtoP as a duty towards people of the society “suffering significant damage” when the state in question is reluctant or otherwise unable to prevent or mitigate such suffering. Furthermore, the HLP Report had proposed a comprehensive, detailed, global perspective and overview of the risks, which consisted of both “hard” and “soft” threats, when reviewing the idea of global security in view of the security risks of the twenty-first century. 

The widening of the definition to comprehend even ‘soft threats’ reflects the HLP’s acknowledgement of the human security approach, which gives a better perspective on the wide range of problems that the world faces in the twenty-first century and how the security council reacts to them by prioritising the rights and interests of individuals as well as humanity as a whole and considers it to be of utmost importance. It could be contended that this broadened scope to RtoP, incorporates and conveys the meaning of the definition in better way as compared to the narrow idea that eventually emerged. 

Taking this approach, all people facing significant harm are worthy of international involvement, irrespective as to whether the suffering lies within the scope of the offenses covered by the Responsibility to Protect framework. The security anticipated under this strategy would prove to be beneficial towards improving public health law and eliminating health gaps within and across countries. 

Although the ‘right to health’ is recognised by a number of international treaties, it remains soft law with little precedential support. Despite the fact that ‘right to health’ is considered a human right that creates certain obligations on the state,  they may use the principle of state sovereignty to avoid such responsibilities. The Ebola epidemic demonstrated the importance of international cooperation in the area of public health. When the ‘domestic healthcare systems’ of the suffering/ impacted countries struggled to adequately resolve the crisis, it was discovered that no significant worldwide solution was suggested or established to address the issue. 

Today, the issue has worsened, as states are not only ignorant about the plight of people in other nations, but are also using strategies like ‘vaccine nationalism’. Such strategies basically obstructs the fair distribution of medical treatment as the governments conclude deals with pharma companies to provide vaccines to their own citizens before they are accessible to the rest of the world. 

Even in its most restricted understanding, the fundamental principle governing RtoP recognizes that sovereignty is not just a source of power but also a source of obligation. It may be asserted that such a concept of sovereignty operates beyond the domain of RtoP and that States should be held accountable for not protecting and maintaining the security of countries facing “soft threats,” regardless of the fact that such risks are not covered by RtoP. 

Furthermore, it is opposed that expanding the scope of RtoP to shield people from everything would ultimately safeguard no one from anything. However, now that RtoP has been recognised and developed as a doctrine of international law, the challenge is to know why State responsibilities to protect people affected from pain and suffering should be divided solely on the basis of the type of threat or harm caused. 

Right to protection must be used to combine and incorporate these tasks under a specific concept. The incorporation of “soft” threats under RtoP would highlight the point that states have an obligation to safeguard any person in danger, instead of a ‘right to intervene’ that they may exert as per their convenience. It is also suggested that providing consistent solutions to the wide range of offences covered by RtoP is simpler than producing such strategies for natural calamities. 

For instance, if the framework of RtoP covered diseases such as COVID-19, states would be obliged to fulfil their responsibilities to their own people and others by calling for a lockdown as per the demand of the situation and further they will be expected to follow fair distribution strategies and not benefit from vaccinations at the detriment of other states’ communities’ health. 

As a consequence, incorporating elements related to public health within RtoP will provide the framework that international health law so urgently needs, while also making states more responsible for their actions. Although it might be true that inclusion of soft security threats within RtoP does not guarantee compliance to those commitments, but at least as per the concept, implementing RtoP for soft security issues would be less likely to include the use of arbitrary military power. Other questions about political strategic planning and mistrust in RtoP among countries cautious of neo-imperialist strategies may have an impact on how this concept is implemented; these problems persist even without expanding the reach of RtoP and must be addressed by making the theory more stringent overall. These problems do not occur as a result of extending the reach of RtoP.   


In the present scenario, if a significant number of cases experience delays in acquiring vaccines and other medications, the epidemic will continue to threaten global supply chains resulting in the disruption of global economies. The only way to fully eliminate the COVID-19 virus is to ensure that it reaches every nation and each citizen should be vaccinated. In comparison to previous attempts to accomplish such goals, the broader concept of “human security” theory of RtoP provides a more stable and organised instrument through which this purpose can be accomplished. The global crisis that the world is going through now is the ideal opportunity to rethink the reach of RtoP and explore how the existing “each nation for itself” policy can be substituted with a more collective egalitarian global strategy.

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