Doctrine of Imputability/State Responsibility


When one state performs an internationally unlawful act against another, it incurs state responsibility. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, for example, bans authoritarian non-intervention by saying that every State is legally obligated not to use or threaten to use force against others.

Non-intervention, on the other hand, is not confined to the prohibition of the use of force. Any sort of forceful involvement in a state’s internal affairs would result in state accountability.

Nicaragua v. the United States is a seminal case in this sense, involving military and paramilitary actions in and around Nicaragua. It entailed the US assisting rebel organizations fighting the Nicaraguan government. In its decision, the Court concluded that the United States was in violation of its duties under customary international law not to employ force against another State and told them not to intervene in its affairs.

The Essence and Grounds of State Responsibility

To assess a state’s responsibility, three components are used. To begin, the State must have a legal obligation not to commit the conduct. Second, the act must be committed by the state. Finally, the act must inflict harm (loss or damage) on another entity. If these conditions are met, the State is obligated to compensate the affected parties.

However, a State is only held liable for unlawful conduct that constitutes international delicts. It is unclear who is responsible for international crimes. The issue of state accountability in situations of international crimes has long been contentious.

While some argue that state criminal responsibility has no legal significance, others argue that there has been a sea shift in state attitudes toward international crimes after 1945 and that states might be held accountable for such acts. Apartheid, genocide, enslavement, colonial dominance, violence, and enormous pollution of the atmosphere are examples of international crimes.

Imputability- Direct and Indirect Responsibility

Direct Responsibility: The State is represented by the government, which comprises the administration, legislature, judiciary, central authorities, and local authorities. As a result, if any of these organs violates international law, the State will be held directly responsible.

Diplomatic ambassadors, for example, are regarded to be representatives of the head of the sending State under the representational paradigm.

As a result, if they commit unlawful conduct while acting in their diplomatic position, the sending State will be held responsible. Similarly, a State is held liable for the wrongful acts of its armed forces, if it had authorized the armed forces to carry out those acts.

Indirect Responsibility: A State may also be held liable for the actions of third parties if such actions were approved by it. This norm is based on the relationship that exists between the State and the individual or people who conduct the unlawful act or omission.

Indirect responsibility/vicarious responsibility is a circumstance in which one entity is held accountable for the actions of another entity. This occurs when the latter has been permitted to do the act by the prior.

As a result, in such instances, the authorizing State is considered indirectly responsible for the authorized State’s actions. Even if authorized entities exceed or defy their orders, the State is responsible if they are operating with ‘apparent authority.’

Case Laws

United States v. Iran (1980)

A group of Iranian insurgents stormed the US embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. They caused damage to the embassy and destroyed documents. The invasion lasted many hours, but Iranian military personnel did not come until much later, despite repeated pleas. More least sixty American diplomats and civilians were kept captive until January 20, 1981.

Some of the hostages were released sooner, while 52 were held captive until the end. When the Iranian soldiers arrived on the scene, they made no move to release the hostages. The United States filed a lawsuit against Iran at the International Court of Justice on November 29, 1979.

The ICJ found the rebels to be ‘agents of the Iranian Government because the latter had approved and perpetuated their actions, translating the occupation of the embassy and detention of the hostages into official acts of the State, for which the perpetrators, while initially acting in private capacities, were rendered agents of the Iranian State.

The Corfu Channel Case

The north Corfu strait had been cleared of mines just a few weeks before the October 22, 1946 explosions. Shortly after the explosions, the British government wrote a message to the Albanian government announcing its intention to arrange a mine-sweeping operation.

The Albanian government responded to the United Kingdom government, indicating that it would not approve the operation unless it took place outside of Albanian territorial seas. The United Kingdom government, on the other hand, pushed through with the mission, and a scan of the mines was conducted on November 13.

While the Albanian government accused the UK government of infringing on its sovereignty, the UK government characterized the operation as a measure of self-protection or self-help. The action, according to the Court, was a demonstration of a policy of force that has no place in international law. It ruled that “respect for territorial sovereignty is an important basis of international relations,” and so held the government of the United Kingdom responsible for restitution.

Legal Ramifications of State Responsibility

When a state violates international law, it is obligated to compensate the aggrieved parties for their losses.

Cessation of the wrongful act- International law requires the accused State to stop performing the unlawful act and to provide adequate assurances and guarantees of non-recurrence.

Reparation- The accused party is obligated to compensate the harmed parties for their unlawful actions. The accused party is obligated to provide restitution, i.e., to significantly restore the original party’s position before the unlawful act. If restitution is not feasible, the accused person must pay compensation. Compensation entails providing monetary reparations to return the aggrieved party to its state previous to the occurrence of the act.


When a state violates a treaty and causes distress to the other parties, it is obligated to compensate them for their losses. Reparation is an essential complement to a state’s failure to carry out any of its commitments.

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