According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the challenge facing the international community is to transform the responsibility to protect concept from 'promise to practice' or from 'words into deeds'. This article argues that the legal significance of the concept lies not in its capacity to transform promise into practice, but rather in its capacity to do the reverse – that is, to transform practice into promise, or deeds into words. The responsibility to protect concept offers a coherent normative framework for the practices of international executive rule that have developed to maintain order and protect life in the decolonised world since the 1950s. In that sense, the appeal to 'responsibility' does not function to impose new duties and obligations upon legal subjects or international actors. Rather, the language of 'responsibility' serves a different normative function – it works to allocate jurisdiction, confer power of a public nature and provide international officials with legal authorisation for certain kinds of activities. This article concludes by suggesting why it is useful to think about the responsibility to protect concept in these terms.