International Law Studies


In the 2020 U.S. elections, Russia authorized and conducted influence operations designed to support former President Trump, although it did not attempt to alter any technical aspect of the voting process. Russia was not alone. Iran mounted a multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut Trump’s reelection prospects, while other foreign actors–like Lebanese Hizballah, Cuba, and Venezuela–also tried to influence the election. Interestingly, China did not conduct operations designed to alter the outcome, although it did consider doing so. The phenomenon of election meddling, however, extends well beyond the United States to such countries as Austria, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, and United Kingdom.

Such election-related cyber operations have captured the international law community’s attention, as evidenced by the recent The Oxford Statement on International Law Protections Against Foreign Electoral Interference Through Digital Means, which 171 experts in the field signed. This article examines how international law applies to election interference from three angles. First, it assesses if, and if so when, such interference by cyber means violates international law, particularly the rules prohibiting intervention in the target State’s internal affairs or violation of its sovereignty, or requiring respect for international human rights. It then turns to the duties States shoulder to put an end to hostile cyber election interference pursuant to the principle of due diligence and international human rights law. Finally, it concludes with a brief survey of the response options available under international law to States facing election meddling by cyber means.