UN plans to update space law after more than 50 years of lack of updating
The United Nations First Committee deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community. On November 1, it approved a resolution establishing an open-ended working group.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty
Outer space is far from a lawless vacuum.
While the Outer Space Treaty offers general principles to guide the activities of nations, it does not offer detailed ârules of the roadâ. Essentially, the treaty guarantees the freedom to explore and use space for all of humanity. There are only two caveats to this, and multiple shortcomings immediately present themselves.
The first caveat states that the moon and other celestial bodies are to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. It omits the rest of the space in this blanket ban. The only guidance offered in this regard is found in the preamble to the treaty, which recognizes a “common interest” in the “advancement of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes”. The second caveat states that those carrying out activities in outer space must do so “with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States parties to the Treaty”.
A major problem arises from the fact that the treaty does not provide clear definitions for either “peaceful purposes” or “due account”.
The vague military limitations built into the treaty leave more than enough room for interpretation to lead to conflict.
Space is militarized, conflict is possible
With increasing commercialization, the lines between military and civilian uses of space are less blurred. Most people are able to identify the terrestrial benefits of satellites such as weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and internet connectivity, but are unaware that they also increase crop yields and monitor human rights violations.
However, satellites that provide terrestrial advantages could also serve or already serve military functions. We are forced to conclude that the lines between military and civilian uses remain blurred enough to make potential conflict more likely than not. Increasing trade operations will also provide opportunities for conflict over operational areas to provoke government military responses.
The new UN resolution is important because it sets in motion the development of new norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior. Done correctly, this could go a long way in providing the necessary guardrails to prevent conflicts in space.
From guidelines to application
The UN resolution of November 2021 requires the newly created task force to meet twice a year in 2022 and 2023. While this pace of activity is freezing compared to the speed of commercial space development, it is is a major step in world space policy.
Michelle LD Hanlon is Professor of Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, Oxford. Hanlon is President of the National Space Society, Co-Director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, President and Co-Founder of For All Moonkind, and Partner of ABH Space Law. Greg Autry is a clinical professor of space leadership, politics and business at Arizona State University in Tempe. Autry receives funding from the Office of Space Commerce of the Federal Aviation Administration. University of Oxford. Autry is vice president of the National Space Society and has served at NASA.