Sovereign Trusteeship and Empire

Andrew Fitzmaurice


This Article examines the concept of sovereign trusteeship in the context of the history of empire. Many accounts of sovereign trusteeship and the responsibility to protect explain the development of those concepts in terms of seventeenth century natural law theories, which argued that the origins of the social contract were in subjects seeking self-preservation. The state, accordingly, was based upon its duty to protect its subjects, while also having a secondary responsibility for subjects beyond its borders arising from human interdependence. I shall show that the concepts underlying sovereign trusteeship — human fellowship, self-preservation and the protection of others’ interests — were as entangled with the expansion of early modern states as they were with the justification of those states themselves. The legacy of that history is that arguments employed to justify sovereign trusteeship and the responsibility to protect remain highly ambiguous and subject to rhetorical manipulation. On the one hand, they can be represented as underpinning a new liberal international order in which states and international organizations are accountable to the human community, not only to their own subjects. On the other, these same terms can be deployed to justify expansionism in the name of humanitarianism, as they have done for hundreds of years. Only by paying careful attention to the contexts in which these claims are made can we discriminate the intentions behind the rhetoric.

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