State sovereignty in the 21st century: low-intensity cyber operations and the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention

Hüsch, Pia Katharina (2023) State sovereignty in the 21st century: low-intensity cyber operations and the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Due to Embargo and/or Third Party Copyright restrictions, this thesis is not available in this service.


Low-intensity cyber operations do not have physical effects yet constitute a potent mode of interaction, for example, when used to interfere with foreign elections. In the 21st century, inter-state relations have seen an increasing number of these cyber operations. Although there is widespread agreement that international law applies to them, the question remains how exactly existing principles apply. The thesis addresses this question by focussing on two applicable principles, the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. This examination sheds new light on how the legality of low-intensity cyber operations can be determined by reference to these two principles.

This question is addressed through a doctrinal analysis, situated within the context of the relationship of international law and technology which explores how technological advancements have influenced major milestones in the development of international law and state sovereignty. Specifically, the thesis provides a comparative analysis of how sovereignty is understood in domains of international law heavily influenced by technological advancements, including the law of the sea, air space and outer space. With these comparative insights in mind, the subsequent in-depth analysis of the application of sovereignty in cyberspace is structured by identifying three core issues: questions of governance, the principle vs rule debate, and jurisdiction. With respect to the principle of non-intervention, this thesis assesses what makes its application so complex. A case study on foreign election interference illustrates the practical difficulties that arise when applying the requirements of an unlawful intervention to low-intensity cyber operations.

Against this backdrop, the thesis concludes that the challenges in applying each principle stem from competing understandings thereof, which precede the cyber debate. However, applying these principles to low-intensity cyber operations at times augments these challenges. Further, the thesis argues that, as state practice in the 2020s has, so far, primarily focused on the principle of sovereignty, non-intervention in cyberspace remains under-explored. Such conclusion is based on an in-depth analysis of the principle of non-intervention that demonstrates that states prefer to retain ambiguity around the application of non-intervention, including in cyberspace. While sovereignty has in contrast gained more attention, the thesis argues that meaningful agreement on its exact application is, in practice, unrealistic given the lack of a common understanding. A more nuanced, explicit regulation of these low-intensity cyber operations is, however, unlikely where states continue to benefit from the legal grey zones surrounding the use of low-intensity cyber operations.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Supported by funding from a CoSS Scholarship.
Subjects: K Law > K Law (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Law
Supervisor's Name: Geiss, Professor Robin, Peevers, Dr. Charlie, Lovat, Dr. Henry and Ozcelik Olcay, Dr. Asli
Date of Award: 2023
Embargo Date: 2 October 2026
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2023-83668
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 21 Jun 2023 13:47
Last Modified: 03 Oct 2023 10:02
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.83668

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