This article examines the relationship between just war theory and the modern principle of responsibility to protect (R2P). In the absence of the principle’s clear use as a justification for the use of force, this article considers two situations which prompted debate about the applicability of the principle - the UN Security Council authorised no-fly-zone in Libya in 2011 and the decision not to use force in Syria in 2012. The article’s core message is that the debates about R2P suggest that rather than view R2P as a ‘new’ principle of international law, it should be viewed as a modern incarnation of the historic principles of just war. The just war criteria of ‘just cause’ and ‘proportionality’ remain the guiding standards by which an exercise of R2P will be judged. R2P remains a developing principle and, the absence of state practice in this area means that states wanting to intervene to protect foreign populations from atrocities are left without clear legal justification for such action. In the absence of UN Security Council authorisation, use of force under the banner of R2P remains contentious. In the absence of a clear legal status, consideration of R2P’s just war origins in the context of recent discourse is helpful in understanding when such force may be legitimate.

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