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
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
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.