Sharing Responsibility: The History and Future of Protection from Atrocities

| July 29, 2022
Facebook Twitter Email
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Sharing Responsibility: The History and Future of  Protection from Atrocities, Luke Glanville (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2021), 240 pp., cloth $39.95, eBook $39.95.

Protecting civilians from atrocities and the arbitrary behavior of states is the subject of passionate debate among supporters and critics, for whom the core norms undergirding its latest manifestation, the responsibility to protect (RtoP), are either worthy of continued investment or doomed to irrelevance following misuse and misapplication. As the rapidly escalating levels of civilian suffering caused by the unprovoked Russian intervention into Ukraine have brought into sharp relief, civilian protection norms, especially those encapsulated under RtoP, are far easier to champion on paper than in practice. Despite agreement among United Nations member states that they share a responsibility to protect, the entire project is under serious threat from several quarters.

Set against this urgent backdrop is Luke Glanville’s Sharing Responsibility: The History and Future of Protection from Atrocities. Glanville’s book presents a sweeping yet elegant history of the sources of this threat to civilian protection as viewed through the lenses of international thought and practice and of international ethics, law, and politics. Rather than taking us on a tired walk down the memory lane of civilian protection, Glanville distills that past into future-oriented prescriptions, surfacing new pathways that may lead to the improvement and revitalization of RtoP, and the imperfect duties comprising it. He takes a fresh approach to reframing both the possibilities and the limitations of civilian protection norms and practices in an era marked by a staggering growth in the number of civilians in need of protection from atrocities, alongside an equally staggering dearth of states that are willing or able to deliver on their shared responsibilities to protect vulnerable people beyond their borders.

The first part of Sharing Responsibility centers on integrating the history of various strands of international thought and practice regarding protecting civilian populations from persecution and suffering at the hands of sovereign authorities. Turning to a broad range of philosophical traditions, Glanville lays a foundation from which to critically examine opportunities states have both seized and missed in terms of their pursuit of their shared preventive, responsive, and restorative responsibilities to communities facing imminent or actual threats of mass atrocity.

Glanville reassures readers that the material covered in these initial chapters is presented so as not to distort or “impose present understandings on past ideas and practices” regarding civilian protection responsibilities (p. 6). For those whose familiarity with RtoP’s “origin story” dates only to 2001 with the release of the final report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, or to 2005 with its adoption in the World Summit Outcome Document, these chapters are a welcome contribution. They show that the contexts and tensions that influenced intellectual thought and practice for millennia still characterize and shape debates around contemporary ethical, legal, and political civilian protection responsibilities.

As a theoretical through line that elucidates not only the limitations bound up in the imperfect duties associated with civilian protection norms, Glanville relies on Samuel Pufendorf, Emer de Vattel, and Immanuel Kant to anchor his analysis in the chapters focused on the international ethical, legal, and political challenges of implementing RtoP. Each figure reflects an integral strand of thinking that highlights the inescapable challenges of civilian protection norms in practice. For Pufendorf, a primary challenge is the need for states to consider the costs and risks of taking action to protect strangers vs. protecting their own civilians—suggesting that states cannot be compelled to protect those beyond their borders. For Vattel, limitations are not found within the nature of the right to protection per se, but rather in answering the question of which actors among many should take action to protect. For Kant, perfecting the duties of civilian protection will always be contingent upon how well states solve the dilemma of who among the many deserving protection should be protected by a given state, and how. Here, the teaching value of Sharing Responsibility is obvious. Used in a classroom setting, it will serve as a powerful navigation tool, one that will help students decode the incredibly frustrating political theater that too many civilian protection debates come to resemble.

Within these same chapters, Glanville grounds his analyses empirically and asks sober questions about whether and to what degree civilian protection is even possible, given RtoP’s rather checkered track record and contemporary constructions of responsibility. Drawing on some of RtoP’s greatest critics, he examines the fundamental question of whether the norm suffers from errors of execution or conception (pp. 78–82). He also illuminates the deeper ethical responsibilities borne by countries of the Global North in relation to their historical role in sowing the seeds of many modern civilian protection crises in the Global South.

Importantly, Glanville’s engagement with Pufendorf, Vattel, and Kant extends beyond explaining the achievements and limitations of RtoP’s implementation in the international ethical, legal, and political realms. In the concluding chapter, it also serves as a vital entry point for a parallel and novel discussion of the possibilities for strengthening the consistency and coherence of civilian protection norms under RtoP. Glanville looks at what has worked, drawing on advancements traced in chapter 4 that concern the development of duties of extraterritorial protection in international law. These advances may help codify shared responsibilities, but even if they do not, the clarification, diffusion, and internalization of civilian protection norms might still compel positive action among states to implement civilian protection measures. In this chapter, Glanville also builds on chapter 5’s focus on international politics, emphasizing the regulative and constitutive effects of civilian protection norms, the perils of rhetorical entrapment, and the impact of RtoP norms as evidenced by both their compliance and their transgression.

Taking heed of recent international political trends such as the emergence of “post-truth” politics and populist nationalism; the exposure of Global North hypocrisies—namely, contradictions between its international humanitarian and human rights obligations and its actual delivery; and the rise of non-Western states such as China and Russia, Glanville elucidates, in this final chapter, what is perhaps the most important contribution of Sharing Responsibility: a future-oriented pathway to making RtoP a more perfectible mechanism through which protecting civilians from atrocities is practicable—with a particular focus on prevention and capacity building rather than coercion and interventionism. Alongside greater investment in these approaches, states ought to focus on consensual measures such as peace operations and nonmilitarized protection initiatives that have proven effective at protecting civilians. Additionally, Glanville urges states to adopt a “more humble and even a more repentant global politics” (p. 173), which includes building state capacity to protect through the expansion of effective asylum policies for those fleeing persecution. Critically, states must reframe responsibilities as opportunities to be embraced rather than burdens to be elided or avoided (pp. 175–77).

RtoP’s most ardent critics point to its use as a Trojan horse and as a pretext for regime change—another way to reconstitute hegemonic power in favor of the Global North. Its supporters, on the other hand, point to the promise RtoP holds to finally overcome the dysfunctional dichotomy between rights and responsibilities under sovereignty, and instead create webs of responsibility shared among duty bearers that, when taken up collectively, will provide real and meaningful protection for civilians facing atrocities. Sharing Responsibility does not attempt to decide whether RtoP’s critics or its supporters have the stronger argument. Instead, it turns traditional arguments on their heads, urging states to “reckon” with their own imperfections and inspire positive compliance with civilian protection norms as a means to the fuller realization of the shared responsibility to protect.


—Melissa Labonte

Melissa Labonte is associate professor in the Department of Political Science and faculty affiliate of the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University in New York City. Her most recent books are Accessing and Implementing Human Rights and Justiceco-edited with Kurt Mills (2019), and Human Rights and Justice: Philosophical, Economic, and Social Perspectivesalso co-edited with Kurt Mills (2018).

To access a PDF of this review, please visit Cambridge Core.

Facebook Twitter Email

Category: Book Review, Issue 36.2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.