Vol 5 No 1

Dear Reader,

The notion of responsibility is at the heart of not only the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, but also of international criminal justice and responses to mass atrocities more broadly. The global pandemic the world currently faces forces us to rethink how we conceive of responsibility today, and the implications for the international community’s ability to respond to mass atrocities. This is all the more crucial as we ponder on the fifteen years anniversary of the World Summit Outcome Document establishing the R2P doctrine we continue to refer to today. We discussed these subjects with the UN Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect, Dr. Karen Smith, in an interview with which we are opening this issue.

As Anne Orford (2011, p. 26) puts it, “the vocabulary of ‘responsibility’ works . . . as a language for conferring authority and allocating power”. For the R2P, this raises questions about whose responsibility (the state, the international community), for whom (individuals, communities), under what conditions (manifest failures to protect), and by what means (assistance, intervention). How we conceive of, assign, and consequently act on responsibility has important implications for the kind of action it enables on the local, national and global scale.

The R2P, a key focus of the Journal since its inception and the topic of many of the articles in this issue, can be understood through the lens of moral and normative responsibility. In general, moral responsibilities may be attributed to individuals and collectives (Alweiss, 2003, p. 311). This includes formal collective bodies with decision-making structures, based on the argument that the capacity to make moral deliberations (as a decision-making body has) means that corresponding duties can be assigned to it (Erskine, 2008, pp. 700-701). This notion of collective moral responsibility can arguably be seen to underpin pillar two and three of the R2P, embodied in the call for the international community to take action in Paragraph 139 of the World Summit Outcome Document.

Crucially, the notion of moral responsibility demands that actors are kept answerable to prevailing social norms and moral imperatives (Erskine, 2008, p. 700; Bukovansky et al., 2012, p. 56), which include norms regarding human protection. The R2P has actively sought to reconcile the “two fundamental principles of the UN Charter that [have] all too often worked to opposite ends: state sovereignty and the protection of fundamental human rights” (Bellamy, 2014, p. 5). The inherent contradictory potential present in the normative commitment to humanitarian protection on the one hand, and sovereignty and non-interference on the other, is addressed in contributions to this issue: Diletta Alparone (2020) demonstrates how national interests have prevented effective action regarding the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, while Macaulay Eddy (2020) assesses the extent to which the doctrine is compatible with the priorities of counterterrorism. The antagonism between the two principles which the R2P attempts to reconcile, and the tendency of states to act in their self-interest, forces actors to rely on the moral language of responsibility when trying to generate political will (Beardsworth, 2015, p. 71).

For advocates of the R2P, the doctrine is, despite its limitations, seen as “the best chance in our own time to build an international community that is less tolerant of mass atrocities and more predisposed to preventing them” (Bellamy, 2014, p. 1). The R2P’s call to action is from this perspective a way to influence states to act when their will to do so is lacking. For sceptics, however, the R2P’s reliance on “a highly idealistic belief in the capacity of moral pressure to alter the disposition of the world’s states” (Hehir, 2010, pp. 233-234) is a highly debilitating attribute. The fact that the R2P remains a normative rather than legal principle leaves its application contingent on political will and moral appeals. Ananya Sriram (2020) argues in this issue that the expectations of the R2P have been set too high; in a world that consistently creates and reproduces violence, the R2P goal of eradicating mass atrocities becomes impossible.

The corresponding, yet under researched, notion of a responsibility to prosecute, also a core theme in the Journal, constitutes, in contrast to the R2P, a form of criminal and legal responsibility. Criminal responsibility is connected to the establishment of guilt; “what distinguishes [the perpetrator] from those who are innocent is that he has committed a certain crime. [The perpetrator] is guilty and therefore has to bear the burden of responsibility” (Alweiss, 2003, p. 309). The notion of legal responsibility holds an actor answerable to a legal system (Bukovansky et al., 2012, p. 56). Direct responsibility and accountability within a legal framework are central to international humanitarian law and international criminal law, and their embodiment in the International Criminal Court (ICC). The 1998 Rome Statute, which underpins the Court, codifies the evolving norms of mass atrocity accountability, and enshrines the concept of individual criminal responsibility for these crimes in international law (Mills, 2012, p. 408). In this issue, Aparajitha Narayanan (2020) delves further into the complex nature of international criminal trials and highlights how new technologies and their use in court bring new challenges, as well as possibilities, to the international criminal justice process.

Despite its key role in international criminal law, the ICC is ultimately limited by a similar dependence on political will as the R2P. While the Statute makes clear the responsibilities of signatory states, “those legal expectations exist in a much broader international political milieu that necessarily intrudes on the smooth running of the ICC as a judicial body, especially because it relies on states to carry out its wishes,” which risks that “states’ multiple, overlapping, and competing interests will inevitably lead to conflicts over interpretation and relative weighting of competing interests and norms” (Mills, 2012, p. 407). As Schabas (2011, p. 61) notes, the Rome Statute’s technical and sophisticated legal aspects are “combined with a series of more political propositions that touch the very heart of State concerns with their own sovereignty”. Evan Supple’s (2020) Hegelian analysis of state sovereignty in this issue contributes to the discussion on the controversies surrounding the R2P doctrine and the ICC, and the implications for their operationalisation.

As we are repeatedly reminded by collective inaction over mass atrocities, in addition to climate change, global inequalities, weapons proliferation and pandemics, it is clear that the sovereign state has in no way receded nor lost its relevance (see Taylor, 1994; Murphy, 1996). In many cases, the state remains the ultimate arbiter. In this deadlock of national interest, raised by many of the contributors to this issue, including Valentina Uccioli’s (2020) discussion of R2P’s application in Libya and non-application in Venezuela, as well as Sam Greet’s (2020) analysis of the European Union’s inconsistent and convenience-based application of its R2P, the question of how to proceed persists. One answer is the notion of political responsibility, which deals with responsibility in the context of self-interested states under anarchic conditions.

Political responsibility, unlike other forms of responsibility which rely on voluntarism, sees global challenges best governed through responsible (national) government. The argument goes that global challenges should be governed by the rule-bound duties of state leaders to their citizens, framed in terms of efficacy and legitimacy; efficacy here referring to the ability of a government to meet its citizens’ needs (Beardsworth, 2015, pp. 75-77). This approach recognises that the global issues of concern to us all are impossible to deal with in isolation, but that appeals to moral responsibility are insufficient to generate action unless they converge with national interest. As such, this notion of responsibility embraces states’ natural tendency toward self-interest in the hope that states will make the rational calculation that to act collectively is in their interest.

Despite its potential, however, the notion of political responsibility can be problematic. Its language of national interest and primacy of duty towards its own national community displays a clear “hegemonic geography of care and responsibility” (Massey, 2004, pp. 8-9). While assuming that responsibility for non-citizens and governance of global issues may be the occasional outcome of responsible (national) government under conditions of global interdependence (Beardsworth, 2015, p. 78), it far from follows that states will always pick this path. History demonstrates this. Emily Faux’s (2020) poem in this issue reminds us of past and present failures to act.

How states make their calculations can be illustrated if we think more broadly about issues such as climate change or pandemic responses. There are reasons to believe that sometimes the states least affected by, and/or most capable of independently dealing with challenges of a global nature have the least incentive to ‘cede’ part of their sovereignty (see Beardsworth, 2015) to a higher body. This tendency could be reinforced when their action derives from a political responsibility to their own citizens, rather than a moral responsibility toward humanity. This reflects the realist stance that states only cooperate when it is beneficial for them to do so, and tend to cheat and free-ride when they can (Zartman and Touval, 2010, p. 6). Meanwhile, “the most vulnerable individuals, groups, classes and regions are those most exposed to perturbations, who possess the most limited coping capacity and suffer the most from the impact of a crisis […] and who are endowed with circumscribed potential for recovery” (Bohle, Downing and Watts, 1994, p. 38). Global inequalities and political inclinations thus influence the calculations states make: consider the Group of 77’s statements on climate change (United Nations, 2019) and COVID-19 (G-77, 2020), in contrast to the United States’ continued intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (Pompeo, 2019) and its recent decision to stop its funding to the World Health Organization (Victor and Hauser, 2020).

Neither moral, legal nor political conceptions of responsibility have succeeded to substantially alter the persistence of mass atrocity crimes. While the appeal to national interest may be the surest way of galvanising states into action, highlighting the connection between protecting people (elsewhere) while upholding political responsibilities (at home) is no self-evident step, nor do actions based on self-interest guarantee ‘moral’ outcomes. But if moral responsibility is unenforceable, (international) legal responsibility subject to political whim, and political responsibility swayed by discrepancies in power, where are we left in terms of the notion of responsibility altogether? A more radical alternative might perhaps ask us to look beyond the state altogether in order to circumvent nationally and territorially applied notions of responsibility and care, which Massey (2004, pp. 8-9) argues have been hegemonic especially in the Western world. By emphasising the mutual constitution of the local and global, and hence the relational construction of our identities, Massey (2004, p. 17) challenges us to acknowledge the responsibilities we carry “towards the wider relations on which we depend”, not only in terms of protection from mass atrocities as discussed in this issue, but as a broader responsibility for the reproduction of the structures that enable it.

Assuming responsibility for structures of inequality and oppression, however, would require a paradigm shift along with an enlivened imagination. As the poignant words of Fredric Jameson (1994, cited in Gibson-Graham, 2006, p. ix) remind us: “it seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations”. This applies beyond the realm of the economy and climate, and reminds us that any substantial change demands not only critique but a critical imagination of alternatives involving policy-oriented research.

Kristin Smette Gulbrandsen, Georgiana Epure and Emma Bapt

Senior Editors


Alparone, D. (2020) ‘Realpolitik vs. Human Rights’ Protection: The Rohingya Crisis and The Failure of the Responsibility to Protect’, Responsibility to Protect Student Journal, 5(1), pp. 16-27.

Alweiss, L. (2003) ‘Collective Guilt and Responsibility Some Reflections’, European Journal of Political Theory, 2(3), pp. 307–318.

Barnett, M. and Duvall, R. (2005) ‘Power in global governance’, in Barnett, M. and Duvall, R. (eds) Power in Global Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–32.

Beardsworth, R. (2015) ‘From Moral to Political Responsibility in a Globalized Age’, Ethics & International Affairs,29(1), pp. 71–92.

Bellamy, A. J. (2014) The Responsibility to Protect: A Defense. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bohle, H. G., Downing, T. E. and Watts, M. J. (1994) ‘Climate change and social vulnerability: Toward a sociology and geography of food insecurity’, Global Environmental Change, 4(1), pp. 37–48.

Bukovansky, M., Clark, I., Eckersley, R., Price, R. M., Reus-Smit, C. and Wheeler, N. J. (2012) Special Responsibilities: Global Problems and American Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Downs, G. W. and Jones, M. A. (2002) ‘Reputation, Compliance, and International Law’, The Journal of Legal Studies, 31(1), pp. 95–114.

Eddy, M. (2020) ‘The Responsibility to Protect and Counter Terrorism: An Incompatible but Inevitable Interaction’, Responsibility to Protect Student Journal, 5(1), pp. 28-43.

Erskine, T. (2008) ‘Locating Responsibility: The problem of Moral Agency in International Relations’, in Reus-Smit, C. and Snidal, D. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 699–707.

Faux, E. (2020) ‘Polished Me Like a Jewel’. Responsibility to Protect Student Journal, 5(1), pp. 139-140.

G-77 (2020) ‘Statement by the G-77 and China in support of the WHO in the fight against COVID-19’. New York, 19thApril 2020. Available from: https://www.g77.org/statement/getstatement.php?id=200419

Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006) The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It). Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Greet, S. (2020) ‘The European Union and the R2P Norm: A Marriage of Convenience’, Responsibility to Protect Student Journal, 5(1), pp. 114-138.

Hehir, A. (2010) ‘The Responsibility to Protect: “Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing”?’, International Relations,24(2), pp. 218–239.

Koh, H. H. (1997) ‘Why Do Nations Obey International Law?’, The Yale Law Journal, 106(8), pp. 2599–2659.

Massey, D. (2004) ‘Geographies of responsibility’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 86(1), pp. 5–18.

Mills, K. (2012) ‘Bashir is Dividing Us: Africa and the International Criminal Court’, Human Rights Quarterly, 34(2), pp. 404–447.

Murphy, A. B. (1996). ‘The sovereign state system as political-territorial ideal: historical and contemporary considerations’, in Biersteker, T. J. and Weber, C. (eds) State Sovereignty as Social Construct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 81–120.

Narayanan, A. (2020) ‘Evidentiary Challenges of New Technologies in International Criminal Trials’, Responsibility to Protect Student Journal, 5(1), pp. 58-77.

Orford, A. 2011. International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pompeo, M. R. (2019) ‘On the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement’. Press statement, U.S. Department of State, 4th November 2019. Available from: https://www.state.gov/on-the-u-s-withdrawal-from-the-paris-agreement/

Schabas, W. A. (2011) An Introduction to the International Criminal Court. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sriram, A. (2020) ‘Not possible in the world that actually exists? Examining the value of the Responsibility to Protect in a world of systemic violence’, Responsibility to Protect Student Journal, 5(1), pp. 44-57.

Supple, E. (2020) ‘Responsibility to Protect and the Immanent Logic of Freedom: A Hegelian Analysis of Humanitarian Intervention’, Responsibility to Protect Student Journal, 5(1), pp. 78-91.

Taylor, P. J. (1994). ‘The state as container: territoriality in the modern world-system’, Progress in Human Geography, 18(2), pp. 151–162.

Uccioli, V. (2020) ‘Between realpolitik and humanitarianism: Why is the application of the R2P inconsistent? A closer look at Libya and Venezuela’, Responsibility to Protect Student Journal, 5(1), pp. 92-113.

United Nations (2019) ‘Unprecedented Impacts of Climate Change Disproportionately Burdening Developing Countries, Delegate Stresses, as Second Committee Concludes General Debate’. Meetings coverage, GA/EF/3516, 8th October 2019. Available from:  https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/gaef3516.doc.htm

Victor, D. and Hauser, C. (2020) ‘What the W.H.O. Does, and How U.S. Funding Cuts Could Affect It’. The New York Times, 15th April 2020. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/health/who-world-health-organization-coronavirus.html

Zartman, W. and Touval, S. (2010) ‘Introduction: return to the theories of cooperation’, in Zartman, W. and Touval, S. (eds) International Cooperation: The Extents and Limits of Multilateralism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–14.

This issue was originally published under our previous title, the Responsibility to Protect Student Journal.