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Last update: July 15, 2015

Summaries of the Work of the International Law Commission

State responsibility1

See also: Analytical Guide | Texts and Instruments

At its first session, in 1949, the Commission selected State responsibility as one of the topics for codification without, however, including it in the list of topics to which it gave priority. At its sixth session, in 1954, the Commission took note of General Assembly resolution 799 (VIII) of 7 December 1953, requesting the Commission to undertake, as soon as it considered it advisable, the codification of the principles of international law governing State responsibility.2

At its seventh session, in 1955, the Commission decided to begin the study of State responsibility and appointed F. V. García Amador as Special Rapporteur for the topic. At the next six sessions of the Commission, from 1956 to 1961, the Special Rapporteur presented six successive reports,3 dealing, on the whole, with the question of responsibility for injuries to the persons or property of aliens.

In pursuance of General Assembly resolution 1686 (XVI) of 18 December 1961, in which the Assembly recommended that the Commission continue its work on State responsibility, the Commission, at its fourteenth session, in 1962, held a debate on its programme of future work in the field of State responsibility. The idea that the topic of State responsibility should be one of those which should receive priority met with the general approval of the Commission. There were divergent views, however, concerning the best approach to the study of the question and the issues the study should cover. As a result, the Commission decided to set up a Subcommittee whose task was to submit to the Commission at its next session a preliminary report containing suggestions concerning the scope and approach of the future study.

At its fifteenth session, in 1963, the Commission considered the report of the Subcommittee on State Responsibility.4 All members of the Commission who took part in the discussion agreed with the general conclusions of the report, namely: (1) that priority should be given to the definitions of the general rules governing the international responsibility of the State; and (2) that, in defining these general rules, the experience and material gathered in certain special sectors, especially that of responsibility for injuries to the persons or property of aliens, should not be overlooked and that careful attention should be paid to the possible repercussions which developments in international law may have had on State responsibility. The Subcommittee’s suggestion that the study of the responsibility of other subjects of international law, such as international organizations, should be left aside also met with the general approval of the members of the Commission. At the same session, the Commission appointed Roberto Ago as Special Rapporteur for the topic.

The General Assembly, in resolution 1902 (XVIII) of 18 November 1963, recommended that the Commission should “continue its work on State responsibility, taking into account the views expressed at the eighteenth session of the General Assembly and the report of the Subcommittee on State Responsibility and giving due consideration to the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations”. In its resolution 2272 (XXII) of 1 December 1967, the General Assemb1y recommended that the Commission expedite the study of the topic of State responsibility and, by resolution 2400 (XXIII) of 11 December 1968, recommended that the Commission “make every effort to begin substantive work” on the topic as from its next session.

The Commission proceeded with its work on the topic at its nineteenth, twenty-first and twenty-second sessions, from its twenty-fifth to thirty-eighth sessions, at its forty-first and forty-second sessions and from its forty-fourth to fifty-third sessions, in 1967, 1969 and 1970, from 1973 to 1986, in 1989 and 1990 and from 1992 to 2001, respectively. Following the resignation of Roberto Ago from the Commission in 1978, the Commission appointed Willem Riphagen, Gaetano Arangio-Ruiz and James Crawford as the successive Special Rapporteurs for the topic at its thirty-first, thirty-ninth and forty-ninth sessions, in 1979, 1987 and 1997, respectively. In connection with its consideration of the topic, the Commission had before it a note and the reports of the Special Rapporteurs,5 comments and observations received from Governments6 as well as documents prepared by the Secretariat.7

At its twenty-first session, in 1969, the Commission, after examining the first report of the Special Rapporteur,8 requested the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Ago, to prepare a report containing a first set of draft articles on the topic, the aim being “to establish, in an initial part of the proposed draft articles, the conditions under which an act which is internationally illicit and which, as such, generates an international responsibility, can be imputed to a State”.9 The criteria laid down by the Commission as a guide for its future work on the topic were summarized as follows:

At the Commission’s twenty-second session, in 1970, the Special Rapporteur presented a second report,10 entitled “The origin of international responsibility”, which examined the following general rules governing the topic as a whole: the principle of the internationally wrongful act as a source of responsibility; the essential conditions for the existence of an internationally wrongful act; and the capacity to commit such acts. Draft articles were submitted in respect of these fundamental rules. The Commission’s discussion of the report led it to a series of conclusions as to the method, substance, and terminology essential for the continuation of its work on State responsibility.

The draft articles, which were cast in a form that would have permitted them to be used as the basis for the conclusion of a convention if so decided, related solely to the responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts. The Commission fully recognized the importance not only of questions of responsibility for internationally wrongful acts, but also of questions concerning the obligation to make good any injurious consequences arising out of certain activities not prohibited by international law (especially those which, because of their nature, present certain risks). The Commission took the view, however, that the latter category of questions could not be treated jointly with the former. Being obliged to bear any injurious consequences of an activity which is itself lawful, and being obliged to face the consequences (not necessarily limited to compensation) of the breach of a legal obligation, are not comparable situations. The limitation of the draft articles to responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts merely meant that the Commission would make its study of the topic of international liability for injurious consequences arising out of certain acts not prohibited by international law separately from that of responsibility for internationally wrongful acts, so that two matters, which, in spite of certain appearances, are quite distinct, would not be dealt with in one and the same draft. Thus, the Commission emphasized that the expression “State responsibility”, which appeared in the title of the draft, was to be understood as meaning only “responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts”.

The Commission also pointed out that the purpose of the draft articles was not to define the rules imposing on States, in one sector or another of inter-State relations, obligations whose breach could be a source of responsibility and which, in a certain sense, may be described as “‘primary”. On the contrary, in preparing its draft the Commission undertook to define other rules which, in contradistinction to the primary rules, may be described as “secondary”, inasmuch as they were aimed at determining the legal consequences of failure to fulfil obligations established by the “primary” rules. Only these “secondary” rules fall within the actual sphere of responsibility for internationally wrongful acts. This does not mean that the content, nature and scope of the obligations imposed on the State by the “primary” rules of international law are of no significance in determining the rules governing responsibility for internationally wrongful acts. The essential fact nevertheless remains that it is one thing to state a rule and the content of the obligation it imposes, and another to determine whether that obligation has been breached and what the consequences of the breach must be. Only this second aspect comes within the actual sphere of the international responsibility that is the subject matter of the draft.

The draft articles are concerned only with the determination of the rules governing the international responsibility of the State for internationally wrongful acts, that is to say, the rules that govern all the new legal relationships to which an internationally wrongful act on the part of a State may give rise in different cases. They codify the rules governing the responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts “in general”, not simply in certain particular sectors. The international responsibility of the State is made up of a set of legal situations which result from the breach of any international obligation, whether imposed by the rules governing one particular matter or by those governing another.11

It was on the basis of these conclusions that the Commission undertook the preparation of draft articles on the topic, beginning the first reading thereof at its twenty-fifth session, in 1973.

The General Assembly, by resolution 3071 (XXVIII) of 30 November 1973, recommended that the Commission should continue on a priority basis at its twenty-sixth session its work on State responsibility with a view to the preparation of a first set of draft articles on responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts, and that the Commission should undertake at an appropriate time a separate study of the topic of international liability for injurious consequences arising out of the performance of other activities.

At its twenty-fifth to thirtieth sessions, from 1973 to 1978, the Commission provisionally adopted on first reading chapters I, II and III of Part One of the draft articles on State responsibility for internationally wrongful acts. In 1978, in conformity with the pertinent provisions of its Statute, the Commission requested the Governments of Member States to transmit their observations and comments on those chapters.

The General Assembly, in resolution 33/139 of 19 December 1978, endorsed this decision of the Commission.

At its thirty-second session, in 1980, the Commission provisionally adopted on first reading the whole of Part One of the draft articles, concerning “the origin of international responsibility”. The Commission decided, in conformity with articles 16 and 21 of its Statute, to transmit the provisions of chapters IV and V to the Governments of Member States, through the Secretary-General, and to request them to transmit their observations and comments on those provisions. The Commission also decided to renew its request to Governments to transmit their observations and comments on chapters I, II and III.

At its forty-eighth session, in 1996, the Commission completed the first reading of Parts Two and Three of the draft articles and decided, in accordance with articles 16 and 21 of its Statute, to transmit the draft articles provisionally adopted by the Commission on first reading to Governments for comments and observations.

The General Assembly, in resolution 51/160 of 16 December 1996, expressed its appreciation to the Commission for the completion of the provisional draft articles and urged Governments to submit their comments and observations on the draft in writing, as requested by the Commission.

At its forty-ninth session, in 1997, the Commission began the second reading of the draft articles on the basis of the four reports submitted by the new Special Rapporteur, Mr. Crawford, as well as comments by Governments. At the same session, it established a working group on State Responsibility to address matters dealing with the second reading of the topic.12

At its fiftieth session, in 1998, the Commission held an extensive debate13 on the issue of the treatment of State “crimes” and “delicts” in the draft articles based on the first report of the Special Rapporteur.14 Following the debate, the Commission noted that no consensus existed on this issue and that more work needed to be done on possible ways of dealing with the substantial questions raised. It was accordingly agreed that: (a) without prejudice to the views of any member of the Commission, draft article 19 concerning international crimes and delicts would be put aside for the time being while the Commission proceeded to consider other aspects of Part One; (b) consideration should be given to whether the systematic development in the draft articles of key notions such as obligations erga omnes, peremptory norms (jus cogens) and a possible category of the most serious breaches of international obligation could be sufficient to resolve the issues raised by article 19; (c) this consideration would occur, in the first instance, in the Working Group established on this topic and also in the Special Rapporteur’s second report; and (d) in the event that no consensus was achieved through this process of further consideration and debate, the Commission would return to the questions raised in the first report as to draft article 19, with a view to taking a decision thereon.15 At the same session, the Commission established a Working Group to assist the Special Rapporteur in the consideration of various issues during the second reading of the draft articles.

The Commission completed the second reading of the draft articles at its fifty-third session, in 2001. At that session, the Commission established two Working Groups on the topic: one open-ended Working Group to deal with the main outstanding issues on the topic, and the other Working Group to consider the commentaries to the draft articles.

On the recommendation of the first Working Group, the Commission agreed as an exception to its long-standing practice in adopting draft articles on second reading to include a brief summary of the debate concerning the main outstanding issues in the light of the importance of the topic and the complexity of the issues as well as the Working Group’s recommendations on those issues.16 On the basis of the Working Group’s recommendations,17 the Commission reached the following understandings:

At the same session, the Commission also decided to amend the title of the topic to “Responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts” to distinguish the topic from the responsibility of the State under internal law and from the concept of international “liability” for acts not prohibited by international law.18

At the same session, the Commission adopted the entire set of final draft articles on responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts consisting of 59 articles as well as commentaries thereto.19 The draft articles are divided into four parts, as follows: Part One. The internationally wrongful act of a State, including Chapter I. General principles, Chapter II. Attribution of conduct to a State, Chapter III. Breach of an international obligation, Chapter IV. Responsibility of a State in connection with the act of another State and Chapter V. Circumstances precluding wrongfulness; Part Two. Content of the international responsibility of a State, including Chapter I. General principles, Chapter II. Reparation for injury and Chapter III. Serious breaches of obligations under peremptory norms of general international law; Part Three. The implementation of the international responsibility of a State, including Chapter I. Invocation of the responsibility of a State and Chapter II. Countermeasures; and Part Four. General provisions.

The Commission decided, in accordance with article 23 of its Statute, to recommend to the General Assembly that it take note of the draft articles on responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts in a resolution, and that it annex the draft articles to the resolution. The Commission decided further to recommend that the General Assembly consider, at a later stage, and in the light of the importance of the topic, the possibility of convening an international conference of plenipotentiaries to examine the draft articles on responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts with a view to concluding a convention on the topic. The Commission was of the view that the question of the settlement of disputes could be dealt with by the above-mentioned international conference, if it considered that a legal mechanism on the settlement of disputes should be provided in connection with the draft articles.20

The General Assembly, in resolution 56/83 of 12 December 2001, as recommended by the Commission, took note of the articles on responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts, the text of which was annexed to the resolution, commended them to the attention of Governments without prejudice to the question of their future adoption or other appropriate action, and decided to include in the provisional agenda of its fifty-ninth session, in 2004, an item entitled “Responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts”.

The General Assembly, in resolution 59/35 of 2 December 2004, again commended the articles on responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts; and requested the Secretary-General to invite Governments to submit their written comments on any future action regarding the articles, as well as to prepare an initial compilation of decisions of international courts, tribunals and other bodies referring to the articles and to invite Governments to submit information on their practice in this regard. It further requested the Secretary-General to submit this material well in advance of the sixty-second session and decided to include in the provisional agenda of its sixty-second session (2007) an item entitled "Responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts".

1 At its fifty-third session, in 2001, the Commission decided to amend the title of the topic to “Responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts”.

2 The Commission also had before it the memorandum presented by its member, F. V. García Amador (see Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1954, vol. II, document A/CN.4/80). (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

3 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1956, vol. II, document A/CN.4/96; ibid., 1957, vol. II, document A/CN.4/106; ibid., 1958, vol. II, document A/CN.4/111; ibid., 1959, vol. II, document A/CN.4/119; ibid., 1960, vol. II, document A/CN.4/125; and ibid., 1961, vol. II, document A/CN.4/134 and Addendum. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

4 Document A/CN.4/152 reproduced in Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1963, vol. II, document A/5509, annex I. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

5 For a note and the reports of Roberto Ago, see Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1967, vol. II, document A/CN.4/196; ibid., 1969, vol. II, document A/CN.4/217 and Add.l; ibid., 1970, vol. II, document A/CN.4/233; ibid., 1971, vol. II (Part One), documents A/CN.4/217/Add.2 and A/CN.4/246 and Add.1–3; ibid., 1972, vol. II, document A/CN.4/264 and Add.l; ibid., 1976, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/291 and Add.1 and 2; ibid., 1977, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/302 and Add.1–3; ibid., 1978, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/307 and Add.1 and 2; ibid., 1979, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/318 and Add.1–4; and ibid., 1980, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/318/Add.5–7. For the reports of Willem Riphagen, see ibid., 1980, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/330; ibid., 1981, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/344; ibid., 1982, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/354 and Add.1 and 2; ibid., 1983, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/366 and Add.l; ibid., 1984, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/380; ibid., 1985, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/389; and ibid., 1986, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/397 and Add.1. For the reports of Gaetano Arangio-Ruiz, see ibid., 1988, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/416 and Add.l; ibid., 1989, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/425 and Add.l; ibid., 1991, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/440 and Add.l; ibid., 1992, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/444 and Add.1–3; ibid., 1993, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/453 and Add.1–3; ibid., 1994, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/461 and Add.1–3; as well as document A/CN.4/469 and Add.1 and 2; and document A/CN.4/476 and Add.1. For the reports of James Crawford, see documents A/CN.4/490 and Add.1–7; A/CN.4/498 and Add.1–4; A/CN.4/507 and Add.1–4; and A/CN.4/517 and Add.1. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

6 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1980, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/328 and Add.1–4; ibid., 1981, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/342 and Add.1–4; ibid., 1982, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/351 and Add.1–3; ibid., 1983, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/362; ibid., 1988, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/414; as well as documents A/CN.4/488 and Add.1–3, and A/CN.4/492. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

7 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1964, vol. II. documents A/CN.4/165 and A/CN.4/169; ibid., 1969, vol. II, documents A/CN.4/208 and A/CN.4/209; ibid., 1978, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/315 (a survey of State practice, international jurisprudence and doctrine relating to “force majeure” and “fortuitous event” as circumstances precluding wrongfulness); and ibid., 1980, vol. II (Part One), document A/CN.4/318/Add.8 (a list of the principal works cited in the reports of Mr. Ago). (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

8 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1969, vol. II, document A/CN.4/217 and Add.l. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

9 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1969, vol. II, document A/7610/Rev.1, para. 80. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

10 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1970, vol. II, document A/CN.4/233. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

11 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1973, vol. II, document A/9010/Rev.1, paras. 36–57. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

12 For the guidelines on the consideration of this topic on second reading adopted by the Commission on the recommendation of the Working Group, see Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1997, vol. II (Part Two), para. 161. For the report of the Working Group, see document A/CN.4/L.538. (see Analytical Guide for individual documents)

13 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1998, vol. II (Part Two), paras. 241–330.

14 Document A/CN.4/490 and Add.1–7. (see Analytical Guide)

15 See Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1998, vol. II (Part Two), para. 331.

16 See Official Records of the General Assembly, Fifty-sixth session, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), para. 44.

17 Reproduced in Official Records of the General Assembly, Fifty-sixth session, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), paras. 49, 55, 60 and 67.

18 See Official Records of the General Assembly, Fifty-sixth session, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), para. 68.

19 See Official Records of the General Assembly, Fifty-sixth session, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), paras. 69, 70, 76 and 77.

20 See Official Records of the General Assembly, Fifty-sixth session, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), paras. 72 and 73.