Global Insider: International Spying Issues a Matter of Politics, Not Law

In the wake of reports that the U.S. engaged in extensive spying on allies, Brazil and Germany this month introduced a draft U.N. resolution aimed at limiting such surveillance. In an email interview, Craig Forcese, vice dean and associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, explained the norms governing international spying.

WPR: What are the existing treaty requirements concerning whether and how states can spy on one another?

Forcese: Put simply, there aren’t any. States have never had much incentive to regulate peacetime spying through treaties. All states spy, and all want to be free to condemn spying by others. So on peacetime spying, international law is creatively ambiguous. The bottom line is that it is possible to argue all sides of this issue. From what I have seen and heard, “international law” is not an issue that those who engage in peacetime spying often feel the need to engage.

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