Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 08/2009

Conflict Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect

April 2009

International Peace Institute


The multilateral system has struggled to respond to the changing nature of conflict and its increasingly brutal effects on civilians. Countless eloquent speeches have been made and ink spilled on the urgent need to prevent conflict and protect civilians. Yet the gulf between rhetoric and reality is still unacceptably wide. Conflict prevention and the responsibility to protect (RtoP) are related but distinct concepts. While conflict prevention is a broad concept, RtoP offers a narrower and more focused framework for protecting populations from mass atrocities, specifically from four crimes and violations—genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Action on either form of prevention faces similar obstacles, namely: mistrust and suspicion about states’ motives in applying these two concepts and a lack of political will and resources to move from words to deeds. Conflict prevention and RtoP, however, are not synonymous and may not merit the same approach in all instances.