Are Control Tests Fit for the Future? The Slippage Problem in Attribution Doctrines

48 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2014 Last revised: 17 Jan 2015

See all articles by Kristen Boon

Kristen Boon

University of Ottawa - Faculty of Law

Date Written: 2014


When do subjects of international law bear responsibility for the acts of others? It is often a question of control. Control is an essential element of the doctrine of attribution, defining the legal relationship between states, international organizations (IOs), and individuals. Control is also a factor in determining what is properly within a state or IO’s purview, legally demarcating the public and private spheres. Yet while control tests are intended to operate according to objective standards, they have important normative dimensions because they can determine the outer bounds of state action, define the allocation of responsibility between states and IOs, and have feedback effects for state sovereignty.

This article argues that control tests under prevailing doctrines of attribution present a slippage problem. Slippage is occurring because the essence of the state, as a primary subject of international law, is changing. In response, various techniques have emerged to adapt control thresholds, locating responsibility within omissions, the duty to prevent or acting with due diligence, and articulating principles of shared responsibility. This development demonstrates great movement within attribution doctrines and the potential scope of state and IO responsibility. One consequence of this movement is that it may foretell the eclipse of general, secondary rules of attribution. Another consequence of this dynamism is the perception that the effective control test is an objective, portable, general concept of law is increasingly suspect.

Keywords: attribution, effective control, due diligence, omission, international organizations, responsibility

Suggested Citation

Boon, Kristen E., Are Control Tests Fit for the Future? The Slippage Problem in Attribution Doctrines (2014). Melbourne Journal of International Law, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2014, SHARES Research Paper No. 57, Seton Hall Public Law Research Paper No. 2495526, Available at SSRN:

Kristen E. Boon (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Faculty of Law ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5

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