The US and Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security: Which implications for the ius ad bellum?


The issue of information security has been the subject of study of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly since 1998. This study originated in a proposal submitted to the General Assembly by the Russian Federation , which later became the consensus Resolution 53/70, inviting all States to inform the Secretary-General of their views about, inter alia, the ‘[a]dvisability of developing international principles that would enhance the security of global information and telecommunications systems and help to combat information terrorism and criminality’.[1] Since then, four Groups of Governmental Experts (GGEs) have been established and submitted the result of their work to the UN Secretary General, who is asked to report to the General Assembly. A fifth group has been established in December 2015, being expected to meet for the first time in August 2016 and submit its report in 2017.

In October 2014 the US submitted before the fourth GEEs a position paper, which was not, however, completely embraced by the other experts in their 2015 final report. This paper is in any case relevant as it is possible to derive from it important conclusions regarding the US opinio iuris on some aspects of the ius ad bellum, in particular the law of self-defence. This post aims at highlighting such implications and is structured as follows. First, I will analyse the issue of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security as it has been dealt with within the UN; then, I will focus on the US position paper. I will conclude that, when it comes to the notion of ‘armed attack,’ the US Administration might have a broader understanding than the international community as a whole, to such an extent as to include any violation of article 2(4) UN Charter.


Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security at the UN

In line with its predecessors’ mandate, the fifth GGEs is supposed ‘to continue to study, with a view to promoting common understandings, existing and potential threats in the sphere of information security and possible cooperative measures to address them and how international law applies to the use of information and communications technologies by States’.[2] Since both the 2013 and 2015 reports consistently affirmed that international law, in particular the UN Charter, is applicable to the cyber-sphere, and that the latter applies ‘in its entirety’,[3] it is unclear why it could still remain to be seen how the Charter would apply. In fact, the UN Charter and all relevant UN instruments should provide sufficient guidance in this respect.

The reasons behind this uncertainty seems to be connected with a political tension within the GEEs. Russia, China, Pakistan, Malaysia and Belarus have in fact strongly opposed to the US proposal of making an express reference to article 51 UN Charter, namely, the provision regulating states’ inherent right to use force on the grounds of self-defence to repel or prevent an actual or imminent attack.[4] They argued that the acceptance of this proposal would permit the US to affirm its supremacy in the cyberspace, which would then become another militarized area.

The report finally adopted does not mention article 51 UN Charter, but identifies

‘as of central importance the commitments of States to the following principles of the Charter and other international law: sovereign equality; the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered; refraining in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States.’[5]

Moreover, while recognizing the need for further study in this respect, the report notes ‘the inherent right of States to take measures consistent with international law and as recognized in the Charter.’ [6] The reference here is clearly to the right to use force in self-defence, without explicitly mentioning it.

The US and the notion of armed attack

Leaving aside any consideration with regard to what the next GGEs could further establish, what is interesting here is the US legal position on the matter. Indeed, it might help clarifying the Administration’s stand on some aspects of the ius ad bellum as they are provided by the UN Charter, the corresponding norms of customary law, and all other relevant instruments adopted within the UN, including the UN GA Res 3314 (1974).

This Resolution, adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in 1974, provided a definition of aggression, which -at least in some of its parts- has been considered reflective of customary law by the International Court of Justice.[7] Its Article 3 also provides a non-exhaustive list of acts that constitute aggression. At the 2010 Kampala Review Conference, States Parties to the International Criminal Court adopted a consensus definition of the crime of aggression which makes an explicit reference to the Resolution and incorporates its article 3. The US has since then kept consistently opposing the Kampala amendment for a number of reasons, including its reference to Resolution 3314.

While not all acts of aggression would also constitute an ‘armed attack’ within the meaning of article 51 of UN Charter, the latter is no doubt both an act of aggression and a serious violation of article 2(4) UN Charter, which requires states to refrain ‘in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations’.[8] The force to which the provision makes reference has been originally conceived so as to encompass only military episodes.[9]

The US position paper submitted in 2014 broadens the range of situations in which a state may legally resort to force in self-defence. First, the paper expands the definition of armed attack, and therefore indirectly enlarged the list of acts of aggression, by including some cyber activities. In particular,

‘States should consider the nature and extent of injury or death to persons and the destruction of, or damage to, property. Although this is necessarily a case-by-case, fact-specific inquiry, cyber activities that proximately result in death, injury, or significant destruction, or represent an imminent threat thereof, would likely be viewed as a use of force / armed attack.’[10]

Such a ‘threat of an imminent armed attack in or through cyberspace is not [always] associated with a corresponding threat of imminent armed attack through kinetic means’,[11] and, consistently with what the US has been affirming since the 9/11 terrorist attacks,[12] can be committed by states or non-state actors.

Second, the position paper equated an armed attack to a generic ‘use of force’ (borrowing this language from article 2(4) UN Charter), without specifying the gravity or seriousness thereof. This means, therefore, that every single violation of article 2(4) UN Charter would constitute an armed attack and, as a consequence, an act of aggression.

Last but not least, in relation to those cases of self-defence fought against non-state actors and without the consent of the so-called territorial state, the US position paper reaffirmed what has been claimed over the last decades with regard to the US war against different terrorist organizations, namely, that an alleged victim State may resort to force when the territorial state is unwilling or unable to stop or prevent the actual or imminent armed attack.[13] This would also apply to the case of an ‘armed’ attack launched in or through cyberspace. However, it was added,

‘[i]f the territorial State does not consent to the use of force on its territory because it proposes to take a reasonable alternative course of action to respond to the actual or imminent armed attack or to allow others to do so, it generally should not be treated as “unwilling”.’[14]

This statement constitutes further clarification with respect to previous practice and could no doubt apply within the context of any US pre-emptive use of force against terrorist groups based in a state considered to be unwilling because it is ‘publicly silent’ when facing the risk of a military intervention justified on such grounds.


Although not wholly embraced by the fourth UN GEEs’s report adopted, the US position paper submitted to the Group in 2014 might reflect the Administration’s opinio iuris in relation to some spheres of the law of self-defence. On the one hand, as consistently claimed by the US since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an armed attack within the meaning of article 51 UN Charter may be committed by either state or non-state actors. Moreover, an alleged victim state could act in self-defence also against a non-state actor, and even in the absence of the territorial state’s express consent.

On the other hand, the US position paper suggested that the US Administration could consider as armed attack (which, by its nature, is also an act of aggression) any violation of article 2(4) UN Charter. It furthermore provided a broader definition of armed attack so as to include cyber activities that do not imply any kinetic force. These two aspects, if upheld by the group, might well contribute to the modification of both the relevant provisions of the UN Charter and the correspondent customary norms.

[1] UNGA Res 53/70 (4 January 1999) UN Doc A/RES/53/70, para 2(c) [emphasis added].

[2] UNGA Res 70/237 (23 December 2015) UN Doc A/RES/70/2376, para. 5 [emphasis added].

[3] See UNGA 70/174 (22 July 2015) UN Doc A/70/174 paras. 24 and 28 (c). Cf UNGA 68/98 (24 June 2013) UN Doc A/68/98 para. 19.

[4] US Secretary of States, Daniel Webster, Letter to the British Envoy Extraordinary and Minister

Plenipotentiary in Washington on 24 April 1841 (as cited in Eric Heinze, Malgosia Fitzmaurice,

Landmark Cases in Public International Law (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 1998) 1247-1255.

[5] See UNGA 70/174 (22 July 2015) UN Doc A/70/174 para. 26 [emphasis added].

[6] ibid. para. 28 (c) [emphasis added].

[7] Case Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America) (Merits) General List No 70 [1986] ICJ at 195.

[8] Article 2 (4) UN Charter [emphasis added].

[9] See, e.g., US Representative to the Sixth Committee of the UN General Assembly, John S Cooper,

Statement on 25 November 1968 (1080th meeting) in OR of the UN General Assembly (Twentythird

session). Sixth Committee. Legal questions. Summary records of meeting (1968).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See US Permanent Representative to the UN, John D Negroponte, Letter to the President of the UN Security Council on 7 October 2001 UN Doc S/2001/946.

[13] See Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self -Defence (5th ed., Cambridge University Press 2011) 275.

[14] United States paper submitted to the 2014–15 Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security (October 2014).


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