Statement on Cybersecurity and International Law on the 75th anniversary of the United Nations

The United Nations Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation acknowledges the dangers that can overcast the positive potential of digital technologies. The Report exemplifies how during the on-going pandemic “social media have been misused by some to spread dangerous misinformation and fuel discrimination, xenophobia and racism” and how the “cyberattacks on the World Health Organization, hospitals and laboratories endanger lives and jeopardize potential advances in responding to and preventing the virus.”

Still, digital technologies, artificial intelligence in particular, “offer ground-breaking opportuni­ties to monitor and protect the environment, as well as overall planetary health.” The Secretary-General envisions a future with trustworthy, hu­man-rights based, safe, sustainable and peace-promoting artificial intelligence. In a similar vein, most national digital and cybersecurity strategies and corporate policies condemn hostile cyber operations, terrorist use of information and communication technologies, cybercrime and subversive and oppressive information operations.

Maintaining international peace and security through the UN can only materialize through friendly, collaborative and sustainable action, and only on the basis of internationally agreed norms, rules and principles. Significant progress on such norms, rules and principles in the context of state use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has been made by two United Nations Groups of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security (UN GGE).

UN GGE experts from countries with very different visions regarding the development and use of ICTs were  able to agree in 2013 that “International law, and in particular the Charter of the United Nations, is applicable and is essential to maintaining peace and stability and promoting an open, secure, peaceful and accessible ICT environment.” The Group built on this consensus, formulating several recommendations on norms of responsible state behavior. Follow-up discussions in the UN GGE, the Open-ended Working Group on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security (OEWG) and in various regional and professional organizations have prompted states to clarify how to apply international to issues of international cybersecurity. Sovereignty, due diligence, the prohibitions of intervention and uses of force, and the right to self-defense and the applicability of International Humanitarian Law have become central themes in relevant national positions.

While these “big issues” of international law remain subject to debate in the context of digital technologies, just as they have been subject to debate in the context of earlier technological developments, it is essential to capture the “big achievements” made so far. These UN processes, regional dialogues and bilateral consultations tell us how international law applies in international cybersecurity: despite their differences and disputes, states and experts meet regularly to seek consensus, promote better understanding of particular issues and different visions, and develop guidance on how all states can become more responsible actors in cyberspace.

To promote international law as the main framework for guiding state behavior in cyberspace, we must promote these successes for what they are – examples of how friendly relations, good faith, international cooperation and peaceful means of settling international disputes work in practice, helping the international community overcome and prevent hostile and malicious activities in cyberspace. In these very processes lies a positive outlook to international law in cyberspace, together with many examples of practical achievements, which have since been endorsed around the world. These accomplishments, more than the remaining disagreements, confirm that international law and state practice, when deeper examined, provide useful guidance on how to develop and use new technologies for the good of the humankind and the planet.


October 24, 2020 — Murtoranta, Lieksa, Finland