Foreign Election Interference

The allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections have led to a series of investigations into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. In this installment of our blog series on foreign election interference, we examine the international law surrounding the issue.

In the last installment of this series, we gave an overview of how the great powers have intervened in elections. According to political scientist Don H. Levin, the US and Russia (formerly the USSR) intervened in 117 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. Levin concluded that interventions favoring a particular foreign candidate generally increase that candidate’s electoral chances. On average, interventions have resulted in a 3 percentage point increase in their share of the vote. Moreover, overt interventions were found to be more effective than their covert counterparts.

But what recourse does a state have if it’s democratic elections have been undermined by an intervening power? Do they have a right to be compensated under International law and are intervening states held to account? The answer to these questions is, in theory, “yes”, but in practice, “no”.

Foreign Election Interference and The UN

The UN Charter does not allow its signatories “to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”.  The only exception to this rule authorizes the UN to make interventions against “the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”.

This principle of non-intervention was expanded in 1965 UN General Assembly resolution. The resolution declared that “no state has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal […] affairs of any other state”. Furthermore, every “state has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems without interference in any form by another state”.

Under this framework, it would seem that, theoretically, foreign interventions violate international law. However, given the extent to which the two great powers of the late 20th Century intervened without being held to account, there appears to be no effective way of enforcing these legal principles.

The US and Russia

Perhaps that will start to change after the alleged Russian cyber-attacks on the US during the 2016 election. In this case, where a great power is on the receiving end, the US might look for justice. In the immediate future, however, increased sanctions appear to be the most effective form of recourse.

Stay tuned next week for a closer look at the details of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election.