May 23, 2018

On Wednesday, British Attorney General Jeremy Wright delivered public remarks titled “Cyber and International Law in the 21st Century.” This unilateral move marks an important step by states in developing and defending interpretations of existing international frameworks as applied to cyber. It will take a long time to cultivate strong international consensus on such interpretations, but even in the absence of new agreements, statements like these help show that cyberspace need not be “lawless.”

In 2017, Attorney General Wright made similar public remarks titled “The Modern Law of Self-Defence.” A major theme of that speech was how 9/11 and subsequent events catalyzed adaptation of international legal principles of self-defense to deal with nonstate terrorist threats. Here, he again emphasizes that international law can only be effective if it adapts to the strategic imperatives of states. There are many important points in the U.K. speech, which will require careful parsing.

Until now, the U.S. government had gone much farther than any other state in articulating its position on cyberattacks and the U.N. Charter, as well as the application of the law of armed conflict to cyber-operations in war. The most detailed—although still pretty spare—articulations include former State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh’s 2012 remarks, State Department Legal Adviser Brian Egan’s 2016 remarks, the U.S. government submissions to the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts in 2015, and the Department of Defense Law of War Manual.

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