The Responsibility to Protect Against Mass Atrocities

At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, the member states of the UN endorsed the principle of a 'responsibility to protect'- an emerging international framework which sets out obligations for states and international organizations to protect people from violence.

Professor Jennifer Welsh's research focuses on the clarification of this principle and argues that effective protection requires preventive action, and not just reactive responses to mass atrocities. This work led to her appointment as Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in July 2013.

Since joining Oxford in 1999, Professor Welsh has focused on articulating the obligations of states and international organisations to prevent mass atrocities, and on detailing effective strategies for fulfilling those obligations. This work has been the focus of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), which she co-founded in 2008.

In the world of real politics, these concerns have coalesced around the R2P principle, which builds upon three pillars: first, the responsibility of states to protect their citizens from mass atrocities; second, the duty of the international community to assist states in doing so; and third, the responsibility of the international community to intervene where a state fails to protect its citizens.

Scholars can play a very particular role in the realisation of international norms, giving shape and specificity to norms by clarifying their content. In particular, Welsh argues that R2P is a political rather than legal principle, contested by its very nature, especially because it challenges existing notions of national sovereignty.

In recognition of the importance of her research, Professor Welsh has secured a number of large grants, including core funding for ELAC (2008–2012) from the Oxford Martin School and funding from the Australian Government for Developing Targeted and Systemic Strategies (January 2010–April 2012); and from the Australian Civil and Military Centre for The Preventive Toolbox: Systematising Policy Tools for the Prevention of Mass Atrocities; and, as part of a larger joint grant, from the Oxford Martin School for Human Rights for Future Generations: From Theory to Practice (January 2013 - present).

Over several years and as a result of direct engagement with the international policy community, Professor Welsh's research informed the conceptual, political, institutional and operational development of R2P. The research informed the UN Secretary-General's 2012 report, Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response. This report shapes how UN member-states interpret their responsibilities, while at the same time contributing to expertise and capacity building in the wider policy community. In 2014, Professor Welsh was the lead author of the UN Secretary General's report on Pillar II of the Responsibility to Protect.

Welsh discussed her research with key figures, including the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, members of the Policy Committee of the European Parliament, and officials at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Welsh's research is also an important resource for the wider policy community, including institutions like the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the Stanley Foundation and the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

Professor Welsh is also currently a Principal Investigator on a major five year European Research Council project on the Individualisation of War.

Further reading:

Jennifer Welsh and Serena Sharma, R2P Ideas in Brief: Operationalizing the Responsibility to Prevent University of Queensland

UN Secretary-General’s report on ‘Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response’.

The Responsibility to Protect Principle is Not the Problem: An Interview with Jennifer Welsh. IPI Global Observatory 2013


This Impact Case Study was submitted to the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014)


Jennifer Welsh