Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Karen Attiah is deputy digital editor for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.

The international norm of Responsibility to Protect — R2P for short — was devised to protect populations from atrocities, to reinforce that every state has the obligation to protect its citizens, and to guide the international community in helping them do so. In 2005, more than 150 United Nations member states formally endorsed by consensus the principles of the R2P and limited the focus of potential humanitarian intervention to four mass-atrocity crimes: genocide, major war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

The past several years have shown that states do not have a monopoly on carrying out mass atrocities: Non-state actors and terrorist groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram in West Africa and al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa region have also been perpetrators of heinous violence. However, R2P’s focus on the responsibilities and actions of states limits the international community’s ability to respond to these crimes. To fulfill the purpose it was meant for, the international responsibility to protect must evolve to also address populations that are suffering the brunt of terroristic, genocidal non-state actors.

Take Boko Haram: The Islamist militant group claims a desire to establish a caliphate in northern Nigeria. Since its rise to international notoriety in 2009, the group evolved from carrying out crude, guerrilla-style attacks to overtaking massive swaths of territory at the height of its brutality in 2014. Boko Haram and its toll on human life and property have faded from the world’s attention as the Islamic State dominates the headlines. However, with 6,644 deaths in 2014, Boko Haram — not the Islamic State — is the world’s deadliest terrorist group.

Since 2009, nearly 15,000 have died in the insurgency. Boko Haram has kidnapped and enslaved thousands of women and girls, used children as suicide bombers and destroyed scores of schools and hospitals, all acts that count as systematic crimes against humanity. Nearly 2 million people have been displaced due to violence. The group reportedly burned children alive in an attack on a village in the northeastern part of the country, and the carnage has spread to the neighboring countries of Cameroon and Chad. Yet Boko Haram’s violence is framed primarily as a problem of fighting terrorism rather than fulfilling the international responsibility to protect, despite the fact that the Nigerian military has failed in its R2P duties: not only to protect its citizens but also to prevent Boko Haram’s violence from spreading to neighboring countries.

Alex Bellamy, director for the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, points out that “in some situations . . . counter-terrorism and R2P are simply different ways of talking about the same problem: violent attacks on civilian populations.” The United States’ anti-terrorism agenda could actually be better served with R2P’s focus on protecting populations, as opposed to our current kill-them-there-so-they-don’t-kill-us-here approach, with its outsize focus on eliminating terrorist targets and enemy combatants.

Adapting R2P to the current threats from violent non-state actors poses difficult questions: Should R2P require states to prevent terrorism? If the economic marginalization of communities, particularly in developing countries, counts as an early warning sign for terrorism — and, by extension, atrocities — what are governments obligated to do? How should governments respond to early signs of their citizens leaving to join foreign terrorist groups, as has happened in the case of the Islamic State, which is estimated to have nearly 30,000 foreign fighters, 250 of whom are American? How should R2P address state military forces committing heinous crimes against civilians while pursuing counterterrorism objectives?

There are small signs that the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is being revisited, opening the door to address the threats posed by non-state actors. Last June an annual meeting on R2P, with senior-level government officials, R2P experts and U.N. officials, included discussions about the emergence of new players such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State. Last week, U.S. senators also introduced the bipartisan Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which acknowledges “shocking acts of violence perpetrated by governments and non-state actors.” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), while commenting on the legislation, made sure to point out “the rise of terrorist cults like ISIL and al-Shabaab that are committing genocide.”

These linguistic advances may seem small, but they are important steps in reframing the fight against terrorism as essential to the international community’s obligation to help prevent genocide and atrocities.

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