Introduction to State Responsibility


Just like in municipal law context invasion of other’s rights gives rise to the responsibility, in international law too state responsibility arises when a state violates the international obligation.

In international law, rules that define rights and obligations of states are generally termed as primary rules and the rules relating to state responsibility are termed as secondary rules.

The law of state responsibility is concerned with the incidence and consequences of unlawful acts, and particularly the forms of reparation for loss caused.

Initially, when a coherent set of secondary rules were absent in international law, states had to mostly resort to violence and self-help to ensure that states that violated international law could be held responsible. Such a resort to self-help and violence were naturally could not be sustained and desired. In this historical background, international courts and tribunals started to develop the concept of state responsibility in international law.

Responsibility is the corollary of international law, the best proof of its existence and the most credible measure of its effectiveness.’ Every legal system allocates responsibility. Norms, or ‘secondary rules’, operate to hold a person accountable for contravening a ‘primary’ legal obligation.
For example, a primary rule in domestic law might be the obligation not to interfere with another person’s property. Whether the interference is attributable to a particular person and, if so, what remedies the victim can seek are determined by the secondary rules. State responsibility for internationally wrongful acts follows the same logic.



Secondary rules in international law are no different from primary rules in that they must be shown to derive from a treaty, custom or general principles.

As the term suggests, however, secondary rules are the rights and obligations that apply after a primary rule has been violated. The leading source in this area is the International Law Commission’s Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (2001) (‘ILC Articles’ or ‘Articles’).4 The Articles have undergone a long gestation period and they exert a powerful influence on the development of the law.