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  • Writer's pictureJoe Reid

Critical Analysis: ‘Opportunity for Gendering the Responsibility to Protect Agenda at the United Nations?’

Joe Reid critically analyses the importance and opportunities to develop a gendered understanding of the Responsibility to Protect Agenda of the United Nations. As the world grapples with numerous conflicts and looming humanitarian crises, the R2P agenda once again needs to be examined thoroughly.

Unanimously endorsed by United Nations (UN) member states in 2005 the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P) established a global political commitment aimed at responding to atrocities including genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The doctrine consists of three pillars: the responsibility of the state to protect its populations, the responsibility of the international community to assist states in fulfilling this duty, and the responsibility of the international community to take timely and decisive action when states fail to protect their populations.²

R2P experienced a rapid and successful rise throughout the diplomatic world amidst the backdrop of the extreme violence that marred the 20th century, and the jarringly fresh memories of the ethnic and genocidal violence perpetrated in the 1990’s across the Balkans and Central Africa.³ This backdrop of violence was not the only catalyst for R2P’s introduction but certainly helped with its rapid rise and acceptance. 

C G. Stefan’s work reviews the intersection between R2P and gender and highlights that for many R2P is considered to be gender blind.

This is far from an attack on R2P as a principle or a significant diplomatic achievement. But a reflection on the fact that, as in many cases, the reality of adopting, implementing and navigating international policy initiatives means that complex social phenomena, such as gender, can be watered down, simplified, or overlooked to achieve international diplomatic unity. This is understandable given that the UN as a diplomatic body is inherently about ‘finding shared solutions’, and the diversity of its 193 member states needs to be respected and acknowledged within this vision.⁴ However, as Stefan alludes to, this approach often fails to take full account of the intersectional nature of the operational reality in which initiatives such as R2P are designed to ameliorate, and in this case how R2P needs to become more gender-sensitive to be effective in achieving its key principles. 

Stefan’s work identifies that a key limitation of R2P is the masculinist bias present during the creation and adoption of the doctrine and the subsequent and prevailing ‘gender blindness’ this has produced. R2P grew from an initial 2001 “Responsibility to Protect” report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). The “obvious omission of women and their activities from how the R2P was envisaged, researched and designed”¹ was present from the start with only one woman in the group of twelve commissioners of the early report, and only four out of the fifteen members of the advisory board for the same report being female. Furthermore, Stefan goes on to point out that only seven of the sources used by the ICISS examined gender and atrocities, and for women and security, only four. This was out of 2000 sources listed by the ICISS. These omissions subsequently affected the wording and focus of the report, and thus the focus of R2P. With gender considerations and women not being referred to once within the initial adoption report of R2P in 2005. 

By not ensuring equal and intersectional representation when planning, drafting, adopting and implementing initiatives such as R2P marginalized voices and perspectives are not only left out but simplistic and often stereotypical assumptions can take their place.

For example, in the case of R2P this manifested itself in the reinforcing of patriarchal stereotypes surrounding ‘womanhood’ and ‘victimhood’ being intrinsically linked. Thus removing women’s agency and the part they can play in anticipating, preventing and participating in social, ethnic and political violence and mass atrocities. This not only links to, and perpetuates, the simplistic assumptions and understandings of gender which restrict intersectionality through conflating the incorporation of ‘gender’ in international relations as simply one homogenous group of women. But severely restricts the level of gender analysis that happens at the top international level into violence, conflict and social order, as the complexities and intersectional nature of gendered inequalities in both times of peace and conflict - and the catalytic effect these have on each other - are not prioritized as a center of analysis. Thus, this use of gender as a simple descriptive tool in R2P and other international initiatives restricts the level of meaningful action taken on reducing entrenched gender inequalities and patriarchy globally. As well as the extent these realities contribute to social conflict and mass atrocities. 

However, alongside this criticism of R2P Stefan also points out how the agenda grew largely in parallel with the UN’s Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, yet the alignment and engagement between the two remains largely limited.

The WPS agenda first made it to the UN Security Council in 2000 with the aim of “increasing the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in peacemaking, conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts”.⁵ Although WPS holds its key foundations in mainstreaming gender into peacemaking and transitional justice mechanisms, its success in driving gender to the forefront of conflict analysis and observation at the international/UN level highlights it as a cornerstone moment in the increased recognition for gender and gendered analysis in conflict. This success can be transferred into R2P to help mainstream gender into the doctrine and help make it more inclusive of the gendered dimensions of conflict and mass atrocities. Scholars and observers have noted that by integrating R2P and WPS together the gendered dynamics of war, civil conflict and atrocity crimes can be better addressed, especially with regards to sexual violence and rape.⁶ Moreover, incorporating and mainstreaming a greater understanding and cooperative relationship between R2P and the WPS agenda can lead to more effective early warning signs for forecasting and therefore preventing ethnic violence and mass atrocities.⁷ 

However, Stefan highlights the risk of the well-documented phenomenon of ‘adding women’ to existing UN and international frameworks, in which the answer to the previous systematic exclusion of women is seen as simply ‘adding’ women to frameworks curated with strong masculine bias. This can often end in initiatives claiming to have a gendered approach “without identifying who is responsible for taking forward this approach and identifying what we think such an approach should look like”.⁸

Stefan’s piece offers a valuable insight into the intersection between gender and R2P and advocates effectively for the need to improve gender mainstreaming into R2P whilst acknowledging the challenges that may come with this. This could be done through creating a more harmonious and cooperative relationship between the WPS agenda and R2P to promote a greater level of gender analysis within R2P. Although it has been well documented that the WPS agenda has struggled in a similar way in regard to fully incorporating ‘gender’ beyond use as a definitive tool at the behest of patriarchal assumptions and norms.⁹ Stefan concludes with an optimistic view on recent R2P UN Secretary General Reports which are becoming increasingly more attentive to gender analysis and the need to prioritise women within R2P. Although. moving forward, to limit the known phenomenon of simply ‘adding women’ to gender blind initiatives, curators of international initiatives have to work hard to push gender further as an analytical tool to ensure the international community does more to protect, empower and recognise the agency of communities and individuals marginalised by social inequalities entrenched by gendered hierarchies. 

Note: This piece, in limit to its length, could not produce a comprehensive overview of Stefan’s piece in its entirety. I would recommend anyone interested to read it in full, full reference can be found below. 


  1. C. G. Stefan., 2021. Opportunity for Gendering the Responsibility to Protect Agenda at the United Nations. Global Studies Quarterly, 1 (3), pp. 1-13. 

  2. United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, n.d. Responsibility To Protect. (Online).,through%20appropriate%20and%20necessary%20means.

  3. Global Centre For The Responsibility To Protect. R2P: The Dream and the Reality. 26 November 2020. (Online). 

  4. United Nations, n.d. About Us. (Online).

  5. United Nations Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, n.d. Gender, Women, Peace and Security. (Online). 

  6. Global Centre For The Responsibility To Protect, 2022. The Relationship between R2P and the WPS Agenda: Addressing the Gender Dimensions of Atrocity Prevention. (Online). 

  7. Davies, S. E. Teitt, S. and Nwokora, Z., 2015. Bridging the gap: Early warning, gender and the responsibility to protect. Cooperation and Conflict, 50 (1), pp. 228-249. 

  8. Davies, S. E., 2014. R2P and Gender: The Marginalisation of Responsibilities. E-International Relations. (Online). 

  9. Krystalli, R., 2020. Women, Peace, and Victimhood. IPI Global Observatory. (Online). 


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