In the International Cyber Engagement Strategy (2017) (Strategy), Australia committed to periodically publish its position on the application of relevant international law to state conduct in cyberspace. The first such publication appeared in Annex A to the Strategy. This document is the second publication and is aimed at further elaborating Australia’s position on applicable international law as expressed in the Strategy. As such, it should be read as a supplement to that document.
The Strategy recognised the well-established position that existing international law - including the UN Charter in its entirety - provides the framework for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. The international community, including the permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council recognised this in the 2013 and 2015 reports of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on the use of Information Communications Technologies in the Context of International Security (UNGGE), as adopted by the UN General Assembly. Australia also acknowledged that activities conducted in cyberspace raise new challenges for how international law applies. To deepen understandings and set clear expectations, Australia encourages states to be transparent in how they interpret existing international law as it applies to state conduct in cyberspace. The Strategy, and this supplement, form part of Australia’s ongoing effort to make its views on the applicability of international law public.
The United Nations Charter (Charter) and associated rules of customary international law apply to activities conducted in cyberspace. Article 2(3) of the Charter requires states to seek the peaceful settlement of disputes and Article 2(4) prohibits the threat or use of force by a state against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state, or in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN. In the Strategy, Australia made clear that these obligations – and the UN Charter in its entirety, including those obligations, apply in cyberspace as they do in the physical realm.
A use of force will be lawful when the territorial state consents, it is authorised by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter or when it is taken pursuant to a state’s inherent right of individual or collective self-defence in response to an armed attack, as recognised in Article 51 of the Charter. Australia considers that the thresholds and limitations governing the exercise of self-defence under Article 51 apply in respect of cyber operations that constitute an armed attack and in respect of acts of self- defence that are carried out by cyber means. Thus if a cyber operation – alone or in combination with a physical operation – results in, or presents an imminent threat of, damage equivalent to a traditional armed attack, then the inherent right to self-defence is engaged. The rapidity of cyber attacks, as well as their potentially concealed and/or indiscriminate character, raises new challenges for the application of established principles. These challenges have been raised by Australia in explaining its position on the concept of imminence and the right of self-defence in the context of national security threats that have evolved as a result of technological advances (see Figure 1).
“[A] state may act in anticipatory self-defence against an armed attack when the attacker is clearly committed to launching an armed attack, in circumstances where the victim will lose its last opportunity to effectively defend itself unless it acts.
This standard reflects the nature of contemporary threats, as well as the means of attack that hostile parties might deploy.
Consider, for example, a threatened armed attack in the form of an offensive cyber operation (and, of course, when I say ‘armed attack’, I mean that term in the strict sense of Article 51 of the Charter). The cyber operation could cause large-scale loss of human life and damage to critical infrastructure. Such an attack might be launched in a split-second. Is it seriously to be suggested that a state has no right to take action before that split-second?”
Attorney-General, Senator the Hon. George Brandis QC,
University of Queensland, 11 April 2017
Harmful conduct in cyberspace that does not constitute a use of force may still constitute a breach of the duty not to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another state. This obligation is encapsulated in Article 2(7) of the Charter and in customary international law. A prohibited intervention is one that interferes by coercive means (in the sense that they effectively deprive another state of the ability to control, decide upon or govern matters of an inherently sovereign nature), either directly or indirectly, in matters that a state is permitted by the principle of state sovereignty to decide freely. Such matters include a state’s economic, political, and social systems, and foreign policy. Accordingly, as former UK Attorney-General Jeremy Wright outlined in 2018, the use by a hostile State of cyber operations to manipulate the electoral system to alter the results of an election in another State, intervention in the fundamental operation of Parliament, or in the stability of States’ financial systems would constitute a violation of the principle of non-intervention.
The Strategy and the 2015 Report of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security (A/70/174), discussed the applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL) to cyber operations in armed conflict, including the principles of humanity, military necessity, proportionality and distinction. Australia considers that, if a cyber operation rises to the same threshold as that of a kinetic ‘attack’ (or act of violence) under IHL, the rules governing such attacks during armed conflict will apply to those kinds of cyber operations. Applicable IHL rules will also apply to cyber operations in an armed conflict that do not constitute or rise to the level of an ‘attack’, including the principle of military necessity and the general protections afforded to the civilian population and individual civilians with respect to military operations.
International human rights law (IHRL) also applies to the use of cyberspace (see e.g. Figure 2). States have obligations to protect relevant human rights of individuals under their jurisdiction, including the right to privacy, where those rights are exercised or realised through or in cyberspace. Subject to lawful derogations and limitations, states must ensure without distinction individuals’ rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association online.
“Recognising the potential for a free, open, inclusive and secure cyberspace to promote economic growth for all communities and to act as an enabler for realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals across the Commonwealth, we: ...
5. Affirm that the same rights that citizens have offline must also be protected online.”
Commonwealth Heads of Government Declaration
20 April 2018
In the Strategy, Australia recognised that the law on state responsibility, much of which is reflected in the International Law Commission’s Articles on the Responsibility of states for Internationally Wrongful Acts, applies to state behaviour in cyberspace. Under the law on state responsibility, there will be an internationally wrongful act of a state when its conduct in cyberspace – whether by act or omission – is attributable to it and constitutes a breach of one of its international obligations.
Australia will, in its sole discretion, and based on its own judgement, attribute unlawful cyber operations to another state. In making such decisions, Australia relies on the assessments of its law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and consultations with its international partners (see e.g. Figure 3). A cyber operation will be attributable to a state under international law where, for example, the operation was conducted by an organ of the state; by persons or entities exercising elements of governmental authority; or by non-state actors operating under the direction or control of the state.
As outlined in the Strategy, if a state is a victim of malicious cyber activity which is attributable to a perpetrator state, the victim state may be able to take countermeasures (whether in cyberspace or through another means) against the perpetrator state, under certain circumstances. Countermeasures are measures, which would otherwise be unlawful, taken to secure cessation of, or reparation for, the other state’s unlawful conduct. Countermeasures in cyberspace cannot amount to a use of force and must be proportionate. States are able to respond to other States’ malicious activity with acts of retorsion, which are unfriendly acts that are not inconsistent with any of the State’s international obligations.
If a state is the victim of harmful conduct in cyberspace, that state could be entitled to remedies in the form of restitution, compensation or satisfaction. In the cyber context, this may mean that the victim-state could for example seek replacement of damaged hardware or compensation for the foreseeable physical and financial losses resulting from the damage to servers, as well as assurances or guarantees of non-repetition.
“Today, the Australian Government has joined international partners to condemn a pattern of malicious cyber activity by Russia targeting political, business, media and sporting institutions worldwide.
Based on advice from Australian intelligence agencies, and in consultation with our partners and allies, the Australian Government has determined that the Russian military, and their intelligence arm ‘the GRU’, is responsible for this pattern of malicious cyber activity...
Cyberspace is not the Wild West. The International Community – including Russia – has agreed that international law and norms of responsible state behaviour apply in cyberspace.
By embarking on a pattern of malicious cyber behaviour, Russia has shown a total disregard for the agreements it helped to negotiate ...
Australia’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy recognises that there must be consequences for those who act contrary to the consensus on international law and norms.”
The Hon Scott Morrison MP, Prime Minister & Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs,
Joint Media Release, 4 October 2018