Sovereignty as Responsibility

Wednesday, April 21, 2021
11:30 AM - 12:30 PM

Virtual Seminar

  • Jennifer Welsh

* Please note all CISAC events are scheduled using the Pacific Time Zone.


Seminar Recording:


About the Event: Contemporary global politics are marked by a renewed debate over the significance and limits of state sovereignty. In the eyes of many, the COVID-19 pandemic has reasserted the importance of territorial sovereignty as well as of national identity and citizenship. Populations have become more acutely conscious of their rights and responsibilities as members of a particular political community, and their ultimate reliance upon their governments to protect them from the virus. Well before the outbreak of this pandemic, however, many scholars, policy-analysts, and state officials had already been highlighting the ‘return’ of sovereignty, often in juxtaposition to either the transnational economic forces of globalization or liberal international norms. Powerful economic and political trends (including protectionism and populism) were casting doubt on the reach and impact of liberal ideals such as free movement and economic interdependence. In part, these trends reflected a structural shift in international order in which the relative position of the United States was declining, and the standing of non-Western powers with attachment to what is loosely referred to as “Westphalian” sovereignty was increasing. Although some IR scholars have argued that today’s great powers (Russia, China and the US) are espousing and practicing a new form of “extra-legal sovereignty” (Paris 2020), the former two states - in order to garner wider support for their respective world views - regularly appeal to an understanding of sovereignty that underscores long-standing principles of territorial integrity and political independence.

This book project takes a step back, to more critically analyse the period preceding our current debate. Before we can address the question of whether and how Westphalian sovereignty has returned to shape contemporary global order, we should examine more deeply why sovereignty was alleged to have been transformed in the first place. In other words, what was the nature and reach of the post-Westphalian order that was proclaimed by so many in the first decades of the post-Cold War period?  While analysts and commentators have pointed to several manifestations of this changed understanding of sovereignty, I focus on the liberal idea of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’, which, inter alia, seemingly underpinned the articulation in 2005 of the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’. According to this liberal understanding, sovereignty can no longer be conceived as unrivalled control over a delimited territory and the population residing within it – ‘sovereignty as authority’ – but rather as a status and set of rights which are conditional upon certain behaviours and capacities of states. Sovereignty is thus not solely the right of the state to be “undisturbed from without” but the responsibility to perform certain roles and tasks within its frontiers.

The central aim of this study is to examine the rise, contestation, and potential fate of what some have called this “revolutionary” understanding of sovereignty.  I ask three more specific questions. The first is conceptual and draws upon the history of ideas relating to sovereignty. Was the post-Cold War articulation of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ really so novel? Or was it juxtaposing itself to a very particular historical period, during which non-intervention was championed by newly decolonized states? The second set of issues is empirical. How has sovereignty been understood in the post-Cold War period, particularly through practices of intervention and state recognition? Have the key actors in international society spoken and acted in ways consistent with the liberal understanding of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’? And the final set of questions is normative. Is it desirable to understand sovereignty in this way? What are the benefits and limitations of viewing sovereignty as deeply connected with responsibility?

While the book project is organized around these three central themes, my presentation will focus in, for purposes of illustration, on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (RtoP). This chapter assesses the degree to which ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ has been widely accepted and practiced by states in their interpretation and implementation of this principle and, in so doing, seeks to both account for and analyse the nature and impact of the contestation that surrounds RtoP.  The chapter’s findings suggest that a conditional understanding of sovereignty was not necessarily shared or practiced across international society, even during the height of liberal internationalist ‘moment’ of the post-Cold War period - thereby posing a challenge not just to the proponents of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’, but also to some of its fiercest critics, who overstate its negative effects on international politics.

I begin by arguing that while the 2005 Summit Outcome Document (SOD) was a significant intergovernmental agreement that provided greater precision about the source, scope, and bearer of the responsibility to protect, its particular formulation indicates that the logic of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ was not fully embraced.  Instead, the text reflected a horizontal logic, associated with respect for sovereign equality and positive international law, rather than a vertical logic that places the international community in a position of authority over states. While the notions of sovereignty and responsibility did come together, they did so in a way that did not override or replace sovereignty in situations of humanitarian emergency, but rather aimed to reinforce sovereignty and support states in protecting their populations.

In a second step, the chapter analyses the types of contestation that have accompanied RtoP’s development, which relate both to procedural matters (such as the appropriate intergovernmental body that should ‘own’ RtoP’s development) and to substantive elements of the principle – including, most notably, the relationship between national and international responsibility. I suggest that RtoP is particularly susceptible to contestation, given its complex structure and inherently indeterminate nature. I also argue that, far from establishing an independent international authority that specifies and enforces state responsibility, the most that RtoP creates within its so-called third pillar is a responsibility to consider a real or imminent crisis involving atrocity crimes - what in legal literature is sometimes called a ‘duty of conduct’.

In the final section of the chapter, I contend that the contestation surrounding RtoP can be better understood by giving greater attention to the normative underpinnings of contemporary critiques of the principle, most notably those which stress the importance of sovereignty equality. Given that RtoP has continued to be associated – rightly or wrongly – with the use of military force, it has frequently generated sharp debate among states about the meaning of sovereignty, and efforts to assert the continuing power of the principle of non-intervention. The result of this contestation, and the reshaping of RtoP by non-Western states such as China, has been a dampening of the original cosmopolitan roots of the principle and an increased focus on maintaining strong and capable states. In short, while RtoP has created a linkage in international discourse and practice between sovereignty and responsibility, it has not given effect to the liberal understanding of sovereignty as responsibility.




About the Speaker: Jennifer M. Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University. She was previously Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute and Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where she co-founded the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. From 2013-2016, she served as the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, on the Responsibility to Protect.

Professor Welsh is the author, co-author, and editor of several books and articles on humanitarian intervention, the evolution of the notion of the ‘responsibility to protect’ in international society, the UN Security Council, norm conflict and contestation, and Canadian foreign policy.