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The Law and Governance of Existential Risks (2008-2022)

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There is a growing concern in the scientific community and the wider public about existential risks caused by scientific experiments and technological progress. An existential risk is one that threatens to cause the extinction of all human beings on earth and hotly debated areas are, for instance, specific types of research in biotechnology, certain types of geoengineering, and the development of artificial intelligence (AI): One can think of a virus that is modified such that its pathogenicity is enhanced, enabling it to cause a global pandemic (these are so-called gain of function experiments (GOF)); one could think of experiments where large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas is injected into the stratosphere so that more sunlight is reflected, potentially changing our climate system (so-called solar radiation management).

Discussing the topic of existential risks means dealing with essential questions concerning the future of humankind: What responsibilities do States and even the international community as a whole have to reduce and manage these risks? Can these risks be effectively minimized without disproportionately restricting legitimate science and technological progress? How can we rationally deal with high risk scenarios in the area of scientific research if the research is intended to solve problems of humankind (for instance fight global warming; fight an epidemic, etc.)? Are there gaps in the legal framework that must be addressed on an international level?

One important aim of the debate is to possibly develop rules and standards that govern these existential risks. Institutes at highly ranked universities (Oxford/UK, Cambridge/UK, Boston/US) already deal with these kinds of existential risks. They try to find answers to the ethical limits of certain types of scientific and technical developments.

In our view, it is important that legal arguments are brought forward in this debate. We want to stress the importance of human rights and other rules and principles of public international law, since they bind – depending on their source – at least an important number of states in the international community and can be implemented by courts or through other institutional means. We want to explore the link between the precautionary principle and human rights, especially the duty to protect the right to life and whether we can deduce risk reduction duties therefrom which bind all states; we want to look into the questions of state liability and operator liability and how they are enshrined in international law as it stands today. And we want to explore whether there are other international law arguments that provide answers for the right governance of existential risks. In doing this, we seek to find a way for an “ethical” governance regime where lacunae in the rights and legal principles are filled by ethical principles that are justified and coherent with the international legal order.

Existential and Catastrophic Risks

An existential risk is one that threatens to cause the extinction of all human beings on earth. This does not mean, however, that other risks are not important or may be neglected: In our view one must also deal, especially from an international law and governance perspective, with global catastrophic risks, i.e. those risks that might – directly or indirectly – kill or injure many people without threatening the survival of mankind as a whole. Hence, we would seek a meaningful categorization of different types of risks caused by research and technical developments. This will be the analytical basis for treating the same cases the same way, which is important if we try to find rational and proportional regulations to limit those risks.

Research Projects





  • Voeneky, Silja: Biotechnology, Biosecurity and the Global Order, Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, 08.01.2020
  • Voeneky, Silja: Responsible Artificial Intelligence: Disruptive Technologies, Dynamic Law, 2nd International Forum on Computational Law, Digital economy Governance and Legal Tech Innovation, Tsinghua University Beijing, 21.09.2019
  • Voeneky, Silja: Autonomous Weapons and International Law, HUMSS Colloquium, FRIAS Freiburg University, 17.12.2018
  • Voeneky, Silja: International Standards Setting in Biomedicine, Symposium: International Law and Human Health, Kiel University, 27.09.2018
  • Voeneky, Silja: Challenges of Artificial Intelligence Governance - Bridge the “Bottom Up” “Top Down” Divide, Panel Discussion FRIAS Freiburg, 29.06.2018
  • Voeneky, Silja: Governance Herausforderungen der Künstlichen Intelligenz, University of Graz (AT), 27.06.2018
  • Voeneky, Silja: The end for freedom of thought? On the commercial use of big brain data, Discussion, re:publica 2018, Berlin, 04.05.2018 (Video; Press)
  • Voeneky, Silja; Evaluation and Impact of Existential Risks according to Public International Law, Cambridge Conference: Challenges of Existential Risk Research, 17.-18.04.2018, CSER, University of Cambridge/UK (Video)
  • Voeneky, Silja: Legitimate Governance of Existential Risks, Symposium: Human Rights, Democracy, and Legitimacy in the 21st Century, Harvard Law School, Cambridge/US, 04.05.2016
  • Voeneky, Silja: Human Rights as Basis for Governing Existential Risks, Lunchtime Talk, Centre for the Studies of Existential Risks, Robinson College, Cambridge/UK, 20.04.2016
  • Voeneky, Silja: How to Govern Existential Risks and Gain of Function Studies of Concern? Seminar at the Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford/UK, 20.04.2016
  • Voeneky, Silja: Existential Risks by Scientific Experiments and Technological Progress: Hard Questions - No International Human Rights Law? Human Rights Programm, Harvard Law School. 06.04.2016
  • Voeneky, Silja: International Dimensions of Gain of Function Research, Symposium: Gain of Function Research, National Academies of Science, Washington, D.C./US, 10.03.2016 (Webcast)
  • Voeneky, Silja: Existential Risks, the Precautionary Principle, and Human Rights, Harvard Law School, Human Rights Program, Cambridge / USA, October 2015
  • Voeneky, Silja: Bioterrorism in the 21st Century, Scientific Freedom, and Democracy – Legal Options for the Reduction of Dual-Use Risks (Bioterrorismus im 21. Jahrhundert, Wissenschaftsfreiheit und Demokratie – Rechtliche Möglichkeiten der Reduktion von Dual-Use-Risiken), 13. Veranstaltung „FreiRäume – Politik trifft Wissenschaft“, Deutsche Parlamentarische Gesellschaft, Berlin / Germany, 2 July 2015
  • Voeneky, Silja: Interdisciplinary Strategy Meeting: Gain-of-Function Research with Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Viruses - Global Impacts and Public Engagement, George Washington University / USA, 23 March 2015
  • Voeneky, Silja: Danger coming from the laboratory: What are the Limits of Research? (Gefahr aus dem Labor: Wie weit darf Forschung gehen?), Herrenhäuser Forum Mensch-Natur-Technik, VW Stiftung, Hanover / Germany, 5 February 2015
  • Voeneky, Silja: Biosecurity - Freedom and Responsibility of Research, Symposium Dual-Use on Microbes: Biosafety, Biosecurity, Responsibility, VW-Stiftung und Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Hanover, 11 December 2014 
  • Voeneky, Silja: Biosecurity - A Way Forward, UN Meeting of State Parties, Biological Weapons Convention, Geneva / CH, 4 December 2014
  • Voeneky, Silja: Biosecurity and the Work of the German Ethics Council, International Conference on Biological and Chemical Security on an Age of Responsible Innovation, Royal Society, London / UK, 19 November 2014
  • Voeneky, Silja: Biosecurity – Freedom and Responsibility in Research (Biosicherheit – Freiheit und Verantwortung in der Wissenschaft), Jahrestreffen Arbeitskreis Abrüstung und Nichtverbreitung biologischer und chemischer Waffen, Berlin, 20 October 2014
  • Voeneky, Silja: Bioethics and the Ethicalization of Law (Bioethik und die Ethisierung des Rechts), Studium Generale, University of Freiburg, 30 July 2014
  • Voeneky, Silja: Biosecurity – Freedom, Responsibility, and Questions of Democratic Legitimation (Biosicherheit - Freiheit, Verantwortung und Fragen demokratischer Legitimation), Interdisziplinäres Symposium, Universität Freiburg: Das Missbrauchsrisiko in den Biowissenschaften – Biosicherheitsrelevante Forschung zwischen Freiheit, Fortschritt und Verantwortung, University of Freiburg, 3 July 2014
  • Teetzmann, Constantin: Biosecurity-Relevant Research Between Freedom, Progress, and Responsibility (Biosicherheitsrelevante Forschung zwischen Freiheit, Fortschritt und Verantwortung), Interdisziplinäres Symposium, Universität Freiburg: Das Missbrauchsrisiko in den Biowissenschaften – Biosicherheitsrelevante Forschung zwischen Freiheit, Fortschritt und Verantwortung, University of Freiburg, 3 July 2014,
  • Voeneky, Silja: Biomedical Law under Examination by the ECtHR: Encroachment of Basic Rights and the Doctrine of the Margin of Appreciation (Das Recht der Biomedizin auf dem Prüfstand des EGMR - Grundrechtseingriffe und die Lehre vom weiten Beurteilungsspielraum des nationalen Gesetzgebers), University of Graz / Austria, 30 May 2014
  • Voeneky, Silja: The Recommendation of the German Ethics Council on Biosecurity-Relevant Research (Die Empfehlung des Deutschen Ethikrates zur biosicherheitsrelevanten Forschung), Presentation Press Conference, Berlin, 7 May 2014
  • Voeneky, Silja: Foundations of the "Ethicalization of Law" / Grundlagen einer Ethisierung des Rechts, Symposium: Technical Options and Ethical-Legal Responsibility, Münchner Kompetenzzentrum Ethik, EU Projekt RoboLaw, Lehrstuhl für Politische Philosophie, University of Munich, 19 November 2013
  • Voeneky, Silja: Ethical Law?! The Ethicalization of Scientific and Biomedical Law (Ethisches Recht?! Die Ethisierung des Wissenschafts- und Biomedizinrechts), University of Munich, 24 May 2012
  • Voeneky, Silja: Necessary Changes and Improvements of the Commission Recommendation on a Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies Research, Berlin, Representation of the EU-Commission, 16 September 2009
  • Voeneky, Silja: Global Research – Local Rules? Chances and Limits of International Agreements on Bioethics (Globale Forschung – lokale Regeln? Chancen und Grenzen internationaler Vereinbarungen zu Bioethik), Presentation National Ethics Council, Berlin, 25 April 2006


PhD Projects


Institutes dealing with Existential Risks



Institute of Public Law
Department 2 (Public International Law and Comparative Law) - Prof. Dr. Silja Voeneky
Werthmannstr. 4 
79098 Freiburg im Breisgau

Phone: +49.761.203-2206
Fax: +49.761.203-67683