Responsibility to Protect: Nigeria

By: Kevin Prucino

In 2001 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty first articulated the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) in its report “The Responsibility to Protect” released in December of 2001.  The report addressed state sovereignty issues raised by military intervention in the humanitarian crises of Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, and the lack of intervention in Rwanda. [1] R2P embodies the principle that “sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; it is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people”. [2] In October 2005, R2P was unanimously adopted in paragraphs 138–140 of the UN World Summit Outcome Document. In April 2006, United Nations Security Council reaffirmed the principle in Resolution 1674. [3] R2P is limited to the four crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.  Fordham Law professor Thomas H. Lee in “The Law of War and the Responsibility to Protect Civilians: A Reinterpretation” interprets the “three pillars” of R2P as:

  1. A sovereign state has a basic responsibility to protect civilians within its borders,
  2. [T]he rest of the world has a responsibility to ensure that every state honors its responsibility to protect, and
  3. [I]f a state fails in its responsibility, then other states may use all necessary means, including armed force, to protect the civilians at risk. [4]

Amongst the worldwide turmoil caused by the acts of ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Boko Haram militant group in Nigeria is receiving international condemnation.  This month, Boko Haram was responsible for the loss of an estimated 2,000 lives during a spree of slaughtering, kidnapping, and burning of Nigerian villages. [5] In April of 2014 Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls prompting the “Bring Back Our Girls” awareness campaign. As of October, 219 schoolgirls are still missing. [6] One of the most recent and deplorable means of violence is the use of abducted children as young as 10 for suicide bombing. [5] Since Boko Haram’s inception in 2002 it is estimated the militant group is responsible for the displacement of 1.5 million people in Africa. [5] Additionally, an estimated 10,000 civilians have lost their lives at the hands of Boko Haram, and their militants number around 8,000. [5]  Secretary of State John Kerry described them as “…without question one of the most evil and threatening terrorist entities on the planet today,” during an appearance in Bulgaria.. [7]

For R2P intervention in Nigeria, a mandate by the UN is necessary to confer legitimacy to the intervening state, this requirement being an effort to curtail the use of R2P as a political tool.  The UN will mandate the intervention only for the four named crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.  The International Criminal Court defines crimes against humanity as: ““Crimes against humanity” include any of the following acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.”  Murder, extermination, enslavement and other depraved acts are enumerated in the definition. [8] Boko Haram is committing crimes against humanity in Nigeria with their widespread murder and other inhumane actions.  Considering the massacres this month a strong case can be made that Nigeria is failing in its responsibility to protect the civilians within its borders; the casualties of Nigerian civilians are getting exponentially worse and gruesome in nature.   R2P favors exhaustion of peaceful intervention methods before the use of force; therefore, it is uncertain what the extent of intervention would be if a mandate was granted.  Regardless of the intervention methods, a R2P mandate offers a legitimate course for the United States and other countries to offer substantial assistance and even military force to help those currently dealing with large scale tragedy in Nigeria.

Kevin Prucino is a 2L and a Resident Student Blogger with the Journal of Law and International Affairs at the Penn State University-Dickinson School of Law.


  1. ICISS (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty), The Responsibility to Protect, Ottawa (2001) available at
  4. Lee, T. H., The Law of War and the Responsibility to Protect Civilians: A Reinterpretation, 55 Harvard Int’l L. J. 251 (2014) available at

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