Responsibility is central to moral philosophy and law. But beyond moral philosophers and lawyers, we often debate in the simplest conversations about who was responsible for a given act or situation.
On the negative side, justice demands that we find out “Who did it?” or “Who is to blame?”. On the positive side, we want to know who should be praised, who should be rewarded. Even if we hold responsible a heavenly being or fate, we still want to know who is responsible.
The downing of flight MH17 is a good example of the complexity of determining responsibility. Most agree that a missile downed the airplane. Everyone seems to agree on the type of missile that was fired. From then on, things get more complicated.
If we assume that Ukrainian separatists were responsible for firing the missile, that is only a superficial level of responsibility; we should go further to try to determine how they got the missile and who trained them to fire the missile.
Further away from the event, can we hold Vladimir Putin personally responsible for ordering or allowing the equipment to be shipped from Russia to Ukrainian separatists and to where the plane was eventually shot down?
If we can hold Putin morally or even legally responsible for giving material support to the rebels that led to the downing of the plane, what should we do with the United States and its allies who supplied material to the rebels in Libya? Once those weapons were in the hands of the rebels, many were sold to or stolen by Al Qaida to be eventually used in northern Africa.
Just as Putin probably did not give the direct order to shoot down the plane, he initiated a process which eventually led to the death of 282 innocent people. If he encouraged rebellious activity by the separatists, is he responsible for all their actions?
By the same logic, is President Obama responsible for the armed rebels in Mali since the weapons used were originally given by the U.S. to rebels in Libya? In a similar vein, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) forces are using weapons captured from the Iraqi army after being supplied by the U.S. Is there an American culpability for the advancement of ISIS forces?
The Gaza question
The situation in Gaza also raises difficult responsibility questions. We all agree that there are Israeli troops pushing into Gaza and that many innocent people have been killed. The United States, as the primary ally of Israel and an important weapons supplier, certainly has some responsibility for the actions of the Israeli government.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations top human rights official, said that there was a “strong possibility” that both Israel and Hamas have committed war crimes. As the major backer and supplier to Israel, is President Obama responsible for crimes committed by Israel?
If we can hold Putin responsible for the firing of the missile and much of the actions of the separatists because, minimally, Russia supplied the weapons, can we hold President Obama responsible for the actions of Israel because the United States supplied much of the material being used?
Liberal interventionists often propose supplying troops with arms to fight against dictators like Assad. They say little, however, about what happens to the weapons once they are delivered.
Punishable by support
In the legal case Holder v the Humanitarian Law Project, in June 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court said the US could punish people giving material support to terrorists or organizations potentially considered terrorists (material support, by the way, also included teaching humanitarian law or how to negotiate.)
By a 6-3 vote, the Court barred material support to U.S-designated terrorist groups, prohibiting people from providing “training, expert advice or assistance” to those groups or even potentially those who could be terrorists.
The majority of the court ruled that this type of assistance was considered aiding a terrorist group in a criminal act, exposing those providing help to prosecution for up to 15 years in prison.
Following this logic, Putin and Obama, as the leaders of their countries, are both responsible for the use of the weapons their countries have supplied to different forces.
To argue by analogy, bankers have a responsibility to perform due diligence to control the source of the money when they open an account for a client. And, the individual banker who has opened the account continues to have responsibility for the account after it has been opened.
Due diligence continues to control the source of the money. In this sense, to what extent is Vladimir Putin responsible for the downed airplane and deaths in eastern Ukraine and to what extent is Barack Obama responsible for the horrors taking place in Gaza?
Daniel Warner is an American-Swiss political scientist living in Geneva. He blogs for the Tribune de Genève.
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