Ramesh Thakur, The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect, 2nd edition (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 444 pp.

Reviewed by: Arenla Jamir (New Delhi, India)

The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organization that has been bringing together 193 member states under one umbrella for over seven decades. One of the main objectives outlined in Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations is to “maintain or restore international peace and security.” Since 1948, UN peacekeeping has helped to resolve many inter-state conflicts and civil wars and has also helped to prevent disputes from escalating into wars.

The UN has come a long way since its inception. There have been innumerable achievements that include provision of food aid to people in war zones; assistance to regions hit by natural disasters; protection of refugees and children; peacekeeping, etc. Since the UN is too centralised and removed from the real problems in the field, the organization faced countless disappointments along the way. The UN’s failure to respond effectively to large-scale humanitarian atrocities has been a major setback. The UN was also unable to respond to a wide range of non-traditional evolving security threats in the form of climate change, forced migration, refugee crisis, and human insecurity.

General Assembly Discusses Responsibility to Protect. photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

At a time when the world is going through a period of instability and uncertainty, there are several unescapable challenges. One of these challenges is the not-so accommodative view on multilateral regimes held by the US President Donald Trump along with his stance on human rights issues. Another challenge is associated with the rise of emerging powers like China, India, Brazil, South Africa and their aspiration to find a place in the international system. Multiple other challenges have emerged, including the global refugee crisis, the global spread of terrorism, and the unending protracted conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Yemen, Congo, Chad, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. The UN is the only global organization that can address both soft and hard security issues when multilateralism itself is persistently confronted.

The second edition of the book, The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect authored by Ramesh Thakur, is an ambitious, up-to-date and timely book that is set in a contemporary post-9/11context. The book considers the changing role and structure of the UN and analyses the transformations of the UN’s operations overtime. It focuses on the transformation of the contemporary organizing principle of the UN from collective security to the Responsibility to Protect (also abbreviated as R2P, RtoP). Thakur also examines how the UN deals with the use of force. The use of force as a principle upholds the first of the issues the author examines in the book. The second issue that Thakur addresses is the question of legality and legitimacy. He argues that the gap between formal authority and the real power is an evidence of erosion of the international community in the present international security system. Thirdly, the author elaborates on the tensions between the US and the UN. Thakur proposes that the US has the material capacity to deploy and use force anywhere in the world, while the authority to do so is legally vested in the UN Security Council. The fourth component of the book discusses differing views between the developed and developing countries. Against this backdrop, the author mentions the emergence of new groups, like the BRICS, that represent developing countries and challenge the US on international issues by asserting their own identity. Finally, Thakur explores the importance of the rule of law and the rule-based order focussed on the UN as the foundation of a civilised system in international affairs.

The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect is vast in its coverage. It is neatly divided into three parts. Part I (chapters 1-2) of the book focuses on the origin, nature, structure, and growth of the UN. This section discusses the conceptual roots of pacific settlement and collective security as the main instrument for maintaining international peace and security. The section assesses the practical side of the UN’s peace operations. The UN-US relationship forms one of the central themes of the book as the US holds dominant international power.

Part II (chapters 3-5) of the book focusses on the soft security perceptions that explain the rise of human security as the UN policy goal. In this section, Thakur elaborates on the breakthroughs and setbacks on a road to achieve universal human rights. He also discusses the international criminal justice and international sanctions.

Part III (chapters 6-11) of the book examines ‘hard security issues’ that are at the centre of the international agenda. Some of the events examined in this section, include the 1998 nuclear breakout in India and Pakistan, threats of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, and the 9/11 terrorist attack. One of the most valuable contributions of this book to the literature on the UN is found in the chapters on the UN’s R2P doctrine. Adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly during the World Summit in 2005, R2P provides a mandate for international community to intervene when a particular government fails to protect its own citizens from mass atrocities. This implies that the responsibility to protect shifts to the international community, which can take any actions, including the use of force, to prevent the atrocities. Major international interventions using R2P doctrine took place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Security Council Considers Maintenance of International Peace and Security. photo credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras.

Gareth Evans (2008) believes that R2P even extends to the use of force, if required, in extreme cases. Chapter 10 elaborates on the different dimensions, including “political, conceptual, normative, procedural and operational”, based on which R2P differs from ‘humanitarian interventions’ (p. 274). As Thakur proposes, “R2P is an improvement on humanitarian intervention on almost all dimensions that the international community finds objectionable. Consequently, military intervention under R2P has much better prospects of a convergence of legality and legitimacy in the use of force than humanitarian intervention” (p. 299). Even though R2P doctrine has been in place for almost twelve years, it still faces lots of criticisms and controversies. The final part of the book, Part IV (chapters 12-13) gives a critical overview of the institutional aspects of the UN situated around the five themes of the book.

The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect brings a stimulating overview of the history of the UN system to the present-day. The book also considers the challenges that lie ahead. It will be an accessible and indispensable read for a broad audience, including academics, peace practitioners, policy makers, and the wider public. Specifically, the book will benefit those interested in international politics, international organization, international law, international security, human rights, and peace and conflict studies. Thakur’s work compiles multiple interrelated themes into one book, which makes it an outstanding and timely contribution to the literature on the UN’s role in peace and security. The book adds to the mounting literature on the UN system by providing novel insights about collective security and R2P.


Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All, Brookings Institution Press, 2008