Cyber operations as “use of force” and “armed attack” under the UN Charter

Oda Ringstad: Master’s project. University of Bergen, 2019.

It has been discussed whether a right to self-defence also applies for pre-emptive self-defence, meaning whether there exists a principle that allows a state to use armed forces in self-defence to defend itself against an upcoming attack. The famous Webster-formulation from 1837 states that a state can attack first if the threat is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” In international law, it is still not established that such a right to preventative self-defence exists, but it appears that there is a broad consensus that the court exists if the conditions are met.

The limits of what constitutes an attack can be different in the digital world than in the physical, making the legal framework very unclear. In a time where digital warfare is a hot topic, issues related to cyber-attacks are still highly debated in international law and research environments. Questions like “what is a cyber-attack?”, “is an informational impact in the society to be considered as an attack?” and “does further access to preventative self-defence when one can do it in a surgical and precise manner through digital methods exist?” are all questions that are relevant in today’s society. I can in no way address all these questions, but I hope with my thesis to be able to account for the legal framework as it is today and analyse whether international law allows such a pre-emptive self-defence by using high-tech methods.