Cyber and International Law in the 21st Century

News by Grace Johansson

This morning the Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC MP set out the UK's position on applying international law to cyber-space.

This morning the Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC MP set out the UK's position on applying international law to cyber-space. This is the first time a government minister has set out the UK view on record, and was effectively an extension into cyber-space of its recent promotion of global adherence to a rules-based approach to international relations and conduct.


Wright emphasised that cyber-space is an integral part of the rules based international order. He explained that International law must remain relevant to the challenges of modern conflicts if it is to be respected, otherwise it will be ignored, making the world less safe.


Wright continued: “The necessity of international law keeping pace with the modern world underpinned my speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on the modern law of self- defence in January 2017. In that speech, I set out how the law of self-defence must adapt to meet the particular demands of a world in which an armed attack is as likely to be inspired by something on the internet as it is to be instructed by someone in direct contact with the perpetrator, and where we can't see such an attack coming in the way we once could.


“Right now, the impact of the internet is near universal. Even those not online themselves are using public or private sector services whose operations depend on interconnectivity via cyberspace. We have moved from a country and a world operating in analogue, to one where almost every aspect of daily life is affected by cyber-activity.

“The cyber domain is now one of the primary means through which states conduct their international relations, both in peacetime and in times of conflict. It features in the risk assessments of Ministers, diplomats, intelligence officials and military leaders. The growth of cyber-technology has also meant that the threats we face as nations have never been as widespread or as complex. And this complexity is easily exploited.”


Wright emphasised that cyber-space is not – and must never be – a lawless world. It is the UK's view that when states and individuals engage in hostile cyber-operations, they are governed by law just like activities in any other domain. “The UK has always been clear that we consider cyber-space to be an integral part of the rules based international order that we are proud to promote. The question is not whether or not international law applies, but rather how it applies and whether our current understanding is sufficient,” he said.

What this means is that hostile actors cannot take action by cyber means without consequence, both in peacetime and in times of conflict. States that are targeted by hostile cyber-operations have the right to respond to those operations in accordance with the options lawfully available to them and that in this as in all things, all states are equal before the law.


Commenting on international law and cyber-space within the UK within the past few years, Wright said “The UK has made great efforts across the last decade to develop shared understanding and agreement on how international law applies in cyber-space. We have engaged across UK government departments and agencies and worked closely with industry; we have consulted with academics, international organisations and the wider international law community. And we have engaged both bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally with our international counterparts in other states and those in international organisations - some of whom I am very pleased to see here today.

“To build international consensus on the role of international law in this area, the UK, together with other states, has engaged in negotiations under a mandate from the UN Secretary General to progress multilateral agreement on the parameters of responsible state behaviour in cyber-space.”


To conclude, Wright said: “Cyber-space is getting larger, not smaller. Its influence on international relations is growing not shrinking. So it is ever more important, and part of the UK's role in global leadership, to do what we can to ensure the law applies in cyber-space too.”

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