The Duty to Refrain: A Theory of State Accomplice Liability for Grave Crimes

50 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2018 Last revised: 18 Jul 2019

See all articles by Rachel Lopez

Rachel Lopez

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: September 8, 2018


In the modern era, as the cooperation between States in military and counter-terrorism efforts increases, so does the risk that a State will facilitate the grave crimes of another State through its political, military, or economic assistance. One of the most prominent recent examples is Russia’s support to the Assad regime in Syria, despite the atrocities the Assad regime committed against its own people. This raises the question: What legal obligations do States have to refrain from assisting other States in committing grave international crimes?

This Article argues that much like there is an oft-cited responsibility to protect (R2P), which obligates States to protect the human rights of people in other countries when their own governments are unwilling or unable to do so, there is an analogous duty to refrain (D2R) from aiding and abetting other States who commit grave violations of human rights, like genocide and crimes against humanity. Drawing from existing sources of international law, this Article argues that D2R already constitutes a binding principle of international law. In addition, this Article makes a significant contribution to the current scholarship on State responsibility by exploring the factors that contribute to impunity for State complicity in international wrongdoing. The author contends that a narrower focus on State complicity in crimes that constitute violations of jus cogens norms would strengthen its enforcement.

The Article then concludes by proposing novel ideas for more effective enforcement of D2R through bilateral agreements and the employment of sanctioning powers of the United Nations General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace Resolution, when the Security Council, whose members are at times complicit in grave international crimes, is unwilling or unable to act.

Keywords: State Complicity, Uniting for Peace Resolution, State Responsibility, Responsibility to Protect, R2P, Grave Crimes, Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, Jus Cogens, Customary International Law, Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, Arms Trade Treaty, Yemen, Syria, International Law Commission

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Lopez, Rachel, The Duty to Refrain: A Theory of State Accomplice Liability for Grave Crimes (September 8, 2018). Rachel López, The Duty to Refrain: A Theory of State Accomplice Liability for Grave Crimes, 97 Neb. L. Rev. 120 (2018), Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law Research Paper No. 2018-A-08, Available at SSRN:

Rachel Lopez (Contact Author)

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law ( email )

3320 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

HOME PAGE: http://

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics