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Capable and Culpable? The United States, RtoP, and Refugee Responsibility-Sharing

  • Alise Coen
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1 See Bellamy, Alex J., “The Responsibility to Protect Turns Ten,” Ethics & International Affairs 29, no. 2 (2015), p. 182 ; and Averre, Derek and Davies, Lance, “Russia, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: The Case of Syria,” International Affairs 91, no. 4 (2015), p. 819 .

2 Ban Ki-moon, “Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response: Report of the Secretary-General,” UN General Assembly/Security Council, document A/66/874-S/2012/578, July 25, 2012,

3 See Gallagher, Adrian, “Syria and the Indicators of a ‘Manifest Failing,’International Journal of Human Rights 18, no. 1 (2014), pp. 119 .

4 “The Responsibility to Protect,” Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide,

5 While this article bypasses a fuller discussion of the ways in which RtoP remains contested as an international norm, it is noteworthy that a great deal of its contestation is linked to “its association with humanitarian intervention and the pervasive belief that its principal aim is to create a pathway for the legitimization of unilateral military intervention.” Bellamy, Alex J., “The Responsibility to Protect and the Problem of Military Intervention,” International Affairs 84, no. 4 (2008), pp. 615–39.

6 See Miller, David, “David Owen on Global Justice, National Responsibility and Transnational Power: A Reply,” Review of International Studies 37, no. 4 (2011), p. 2033 .

7 See Souter, James, “Towards a Theory of Asylum as Reparation for Past Injustice,” Political Studies 62, no. 2 (2014), pp. 326–42; and Ralph, Jason and Souter, James, “A Special Responsibility to Protect: the U.K., Australia and the Rise of Islamic State,” International Affairs 91, no. 4 (2015), pp. 709–23.

8 In seeking to move away from the reification of refugees as unwanted “burdens,” I opt to use the more neutral phrase of “responsibility-sharing” that recognizes refugees might also impart positive contributions to host societies. See Kritzman-Amir, Tally, “Not in My Backyard: On the Morality of Responsibility Sharing in Refugee Law,” Brooklyn Journal of International Law 34, no. 2 (2009), pp. 355–93.

9 Betts, Alexander and Durieux, Jean-François, “Convention Plus as a Norm-Setting Exercise,” Journal of Refugee Studies 20, no. 3 (2007), p. 510 .

10 Erskine, Toni, “Coalitions of the Willing and Responsibilities to Protect: Informal Associations, Enhanced Capacities, and Shared Moral Burdens,” Ethics & International Affairs 28, no. 1 (2014), pp. 137–38.

11 This principle obligates states not to return refugees to their place of persecution.

12 Gibney, Matthew J., “Refugees and Justice between States,” European Journal of Political Theory 14, no. 4 (2015), p. 461 .

13 UNHCR, “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015,” 2016,

14 Betts, Alexander, Forced Migration and Global Politics (Malden, Mass.: Wiley, 2009), p. 124 .

15 Ferracioli, Luara, “The Appeal and Danger of a New Refugee Convention,” Social Theory and Practice 40, no. 1 (2014), pp. 130–31.

16 Gibney, “Refugees and Justice between States,” p. 456.

17 Suhrke, Astri, “Burden-Sharing during Refugee Emergencies: The Logic of Collective versus National Action,” Journal of Refugee Studies 11, no. 4 (1998), p. 410.

18 Gregor Aisch and Sarah Almukhtar, “Seeking a Fair Distribution of Migrants in Europe,” New York Times, September 22, 2015,

19 Angeliki Dimitriadi, “Burden Sharing, Where Art Thou?” European Council on Foreign Relations, November 11, 2015,

20 See Betts, Alexander, Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009).

21 See, for example, Haddad, Emma, The Refugee in International Society: Between Sovereigns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

22 Robinson, Mary, “Climate Justice: Challenge and Opportunity,” Irish Studies in International Affairs 22 (2011), p. 68 .

23 Deere-Birkbeck, Caroline, “Global Governance in the Context of Climate Change: The Challenges of Increasingly Complex Risk Parameters,” International Affairs 85, no. 6 (2009), p. 1192 .

24 Bray, Daniel, “Pragmatic Ethics and the Will to Believe in Cosmopolitanism,” International Theory 5, no. 3 (2013), p. 449 .

25 Coen, Alise, “R2P, Global Governance, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” International Journal of Human Rights 19, no. 8 (2015), p. 1051 .

26 Barutciski, Michael and Suhrke, Astri, “Lessons from the Kosovo Refugee Crisis: Innovations in Protection and Burden-Sharing,” Journal of Refugee Studies 14, no. 2 (2001), pp. 109–10.

27 Souter, “Towards a Theory of Asylum as Reparation for Past Injustice,” p. 326.

28 Ralph and Souter, “A Special Responsibility to Protect,” p. 712.

29 Eckersley, Robyn, “The Common but Differentiated Responsibilities of States to Assist and Receive ‘Climate Refugees,’European Journal of Political Theory 14, no. 4 (2015), pp. 481500 .

30 See Rossi, Enzo and Sleat, Matt, “Realism in Normative Political Theory,” Philosophy Compass 9, no. 10 (2014), p. 697 .

31 Hall, Edward, “How to Do Realistic Political Theory (and Why You Might Want to),” European Journal of Political Theory, DOI: 1474885115577820 (2015), pp. 1011 .

32 Rossi, Enzo, “Justice, Legitimacy and (Normative) Authority for Political Realists,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 15, no. 2 (2012), p. 149 .

33 Bray, “Pragmatic Ethics and the Will to Believe in Cosmopolitanism,” p. 451.

34 Stiglitz, Joseph E., “Sharing the Burden of Saving the Planet: Global Social Justice for Sustainable Development: Lessons from the Theory of Public Finance,” in Stiglitz, Joseph E. and Kaldor, Mary, eds., The Quest for Security: Protection without Protectionism and the Challenge of Global Governance (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 171 .

35 Esty, Daniel C., “Revitalizing Global Environmental Governance for Climate Change,” Global Governance 15, no. 4 (2009), p. 429 .

36 Hochstetler, Kathryn, “Climate Rights and Obligations for Emerging States: The Cases of Brazil and South Africa,” Social Research 79, no. 4 (2012), p. 967 .

37 Vanderheiden, Steve, “Globalizing Responsibility for Climate Change,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 1 (2011), p. 80 .

38 Ralph and Souter, “A Special Responsibility to Protect,” p. 717.

39 Shue, Henry, “Face Reality? After You!—A Call for Leadership on Climate Change,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 1 (2011), p. 22 .

40 See Hochstetler, “Climate Rights and Obligations for Emerging States,” p. 963; and Robinson, “Climate Justice,” p. 70.

41 Erskine, “Coalitions of the Willing and Responsibilities to Protect,” p. 134.

42 IOM, “Mixed Migration Flows in the Mediterranean and Beyond,” February 25, 2016,

43 UNHCR, “Global Trends,” 2016.

44 International Rescue Committee, “International Rescue Committee: US Commitment to Accept Up to 8,000 Syrians Not Enough,” Press Release, September 2, 2015,

45 Betts, Alexander, “The Normative Terrain of the Global Refugee Regime,” Ethics & International Affairs 29, no. 4 (2015), pp. 363–75.

46 Vanderheiden, “Globalizing Responsibility for Climate Change,” p. 76.

47 Souter, “Towards a Theory of Asylum as Reparation for Past Injustice,” p. 338.

48 See Isakhan, Benjamin, “Introduction: The Iraq Legacies—Intervention, Occupation, Withdrawal and Beyond,” in Isakhan, Benjamin, ed., The Legacy of Iraq: From the 2003 War to the “Islamic State” (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), pp. 1112 .

49 Jessica Stern, “The Continuing Cost of the Iraq War: The Spread of Jihadi Groups throughout the Region,” Watson Institute for International Studies, Working Paper No. 2014-19, February 18, 2014, p. 3.

50 Benjamin Isakhan, “The De-Baathification of Post-2003 Iraq: Purging the Past for Political Power,” in Isakhan, The Legacy of Iraq, p. 22.

51 See Banta, Benjamin R., “Just War Theory and the 2003 Iraq War Forced Displacement,” Journal of Refugee Studies 21, no. 3 (2008), pp. 261–84; and Howard Adelman, “Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq: Internal and External Displacement,” in Isakhan, The Legacy of Iraq, p. 180.

52 See Byman, Daniel, “Buddies or Burdens? Understanding the Al Qaeda Relationship with Its Affiliate Organizations,” Security Studies 23, no. 3 (2014), p. 461 ; Celso, Anthony, “Zarqawi's Legacy: Al Qaeda's ISIS ‘Renegade,’Mediterranean Quarterly 26, no. 2 (2015), p. 24 ; and Cronin, Audrey Kurth, “ISIS is Not a Terrorist Group,” Foreign Affairs 94, no. 2 (2015), p. 88 .

53 Stern, Jessica and Berger, J. M., ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), pp. 2526 .

54 See, for example, O'Callaghan, Ronan, Walzer, Just War and Iraq: Ethics as Response (New York: Routledge, 2016).

55 Adelman, “Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq,” pp. 177–78.

56 Kelley, Colin P. et al. , “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought,” PNAS 112, no. 11 (2015), p. 3245 .

57 Hegghammer, Thomas, “Global Jihadism after the Iraq War,” Middle East Journal 60, no. 1 (2006), pp. 1132 .

58 Hegghammer, Thomas, “Syria's Foreign Fighters,” POMEPS Briefings 22 (2013), p. 49 .

59 Ranj Alaaldin, “Shia Ascendancy in Iraq and the Sectarian Polarization of the Middle East,” in Isakhan, ed., The Legacy of Iraq, p. 192.

60 Pressman, Jeremy, “Same Old Story? Obama and the Arab Uprisings,” in Haas, Mark L. and Lesch, David W., eds., The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East (Boulder: Westview Press, 2013), p. 224 .

61 Downes, Alexander, “Why Regime Change is a Bad Idea in Syria,” POMEPS Briefings 22 (2013), p. 62 .

62 Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali, “U.S. Weaponry is Turning Syria into Proxy War with Russia,” New York Times, October 12, 2015,

63 See Hudson, Michael C., “To Play the Hegemon: Fifty Years of US Policy toward the Middle East,” Middle East Journal 50, no. 3 (1996), pp. 329–43; and Little, Douglas, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

64 Mokhtari, Shadi, “Human Rights and Power Amid Protest and Change in the Arab World,” Third World Quarterly 36, no. 6 (2015), pp. 1207–221.

65 Huber, Daniela, “U.S. and EU Human Rights and Democracy Promotion since the Arab Spring. Rethinking its Content, Targets and Instruments,” International Spectator 48, no. 3 (2013), p. 98 .

66 Baroudi, Sami E., “Arab Intellectuals and the Bush Administration's Campaign for Democracy: The Case of the Greater Middle East Initiative,” Middle East Journal 61, no. 3 (2007), p. 403 .

67 For example, in its response to the Arab uprisings, U.S. policy was limited and relatively accommodating in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, where security interests and alliances might be undermined by regime change. In contrast, the United States supported the overthrow of “adversarial” regimes in Syria and Libya. Pressman, “Same Old Story,” pp. 221–23.

68 Mokhtari, “Human Rights and Power Amid Protest and Change,” p. 1214.

69 David Lesch, “The Uprising that Wasn't Supposed to Happen: Syria and Arab Spring,” in Haas and Lesch, The Arab Spring, p. 85.

70 Harth, Nicole S., Leach, Colin W., and Kessler, Thomas, “Guilt, Anger, and Pride about In-Group Environmental Behavior: Different Emotions Predict Distinct Intentions,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 34 (2013), p. 25 .

71 Shue, “Face Reality? After You!” p. 21.

72 See Hall, “How to Do Realistic Political Theory,” pp. 4–5.

73 Barutciski and Suhrke, “Lessons from the Kosovo Refugee Crisis,” p. 109.

74 Young, Oran R., The Institutional Dimensions of Environmental Change: Fit, Interplay, and Scale (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).

75 Libal, Kathryn and Harding, Scott, “Challenging U.S. Silence: International NGOs and the Iraqi Refugee Crisis,” in Martínez, Samuel, ed., International Migration and Human Rights: The Global Repercussions of U.S. Policy (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2009), p. 229 .

76 Rossi, “Justice, Legitimacy and (Normative) Authority for Political Realists,” p. 149.

77 Beardsworth, Richard, “From Moral to Political Responsibility in a Globalized Age,” Ethics & International Affairs 29, no. 1 (2015), p. 75 .

78 Suhrke, “Burden-Sharing during Refugee Emergencies,” p. 398.

79 G. John Ikenberry, “Global Security Cooperation in the Twenty-First Century,” in Stiglitz and Kaldor, The Quest for Security, p. 113.

80 See, for example, Kirchhoff, Johanna, Wagner, Ulrich, and Strack, Micha, “Apologies: Words of Magic? The Role of Verbal Components, Anger Reduction, and Offence Severity,” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 18, no. 2 (2012), pp. 109–30; and Nagar, Rotem and Maoz, Ifat, “Predicting Jewish-Israeli Recognition of Palestinian Pain and Suffering,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (2015), DOI: 0022002715590875 .

81 Schumann, Karina and Dweck, Carol S., “Who Accepts Responsibility for Their Transgressions?Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40, no. 12 (2014), p. 1603 .

82 Bray, “Pragmatic Ethics and the Will to Believe in Cosmopolitanism,” p. 447.

83 Leep, Matthew Coen, “(Ac)Counting (for) their Dead: Responsiveness to Iraqi Civilian Casualties in the U.S. House of Representatives,” International Politics 52, no. 1 (2015), p. 61 .

84 Shibley Telhami, “American Attitudes on Refugees from the Middle East,” Brookings Institution, June 13, 2016,

85 Krebs, Ronald R. and Lobasz, Jennifer K., “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion, and the Road to War in Iraq,” Security Studies 16, no. 3 (2007), pp. 431–32.

86 See Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978/2012).

87 For a useful overview regarding American attitudes on exceptionalism, the importance of religion, and the role of partisan identity, see “The American-Western European Values Gap,” Pew Research Center, November 17, 2011,

88 Sarah McCammon, “Evangelical Groups Tell Political Leaders: ‘Jesus Was a Refugee,’” NPR, November 19, 2015,

89 Deborah Amos, “As U.S. Politicians Shun Syrian Refugees, Religious Groups Embrace Them,” NPR, August 10, 2016,

90 Cronin, “ISIS is Not a Terrorist Group,” p. 97.

91 Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 253.

* An earlier version of this manuscript was presented at the 2016 University of Leeds workshop on “The Responsibility to Protect and the Refugee Crisis.” The author is grateful to the workshop organizers and participants for their feedback and collaboration, and is particularly appreciative of the instructive comments on this research provided by Jason Ralph and James Souter as part of their project on “The Responsibility to Protect in the Context of the Continuing ‘War on Terror’: A Study of Liberal Interventionism and the Syrian Crisis.” The author also thanks the journal's anonymous reviewers and editorial team for their productive feedback.

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