Luca Ferro

No Interference, No Problem: Voter Influence Operations and International Law

(2020/1) Revue belge de droit international 323 

The 2016 US Presidential Election was marred by (cyber-)meddling allegedly directed by Russia and aimed at sowing discord in the political system, boost Donald Trump’s election chances, and steal voter data and other sensitive information. Using that alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 election as a case study, this article examines its legality under public international law. Numerous books, articles and blog posts have since dealt with this issue, focusing on (all or some of) such primary international legal norms as the principle of sovereign equality of States, the principle of non-intervention, the right to self-determination, the duty of due diligence and the human right to privacy. Almost without exception, although expressed with varying degrees of confidence, commentators concluded that one or more of these norms were violated leading up to the 2016 election, resulting in a fragile yet broad academic consensus on the illegality of the Russian operation and, by extension, voter influence operations (or VIOPS).

This article aims to revisit and challenge that consensus. It starts with an overview of case facts as well as the domestic and international reactions to which they gave rise in Section 2. Section 3 then zooms in on three key (and interrelated) international legal norms: sovereignty, non-intervention and self-determination. It applies these legal standards (as interpreted) to the facts (as assumed). Finally, Section 4 wraps up the legal analysis and concludes.