Will Space Law be Obeyed by Today’s Global Superpowers?

There’s a pressing need for comprehensive space law.

Not only are nations sprinting to claim dominance in outer space, but we are also seeing capitalists racing for the prize. Suddenly, a huge demand for some governance and authority is sorely needed.

We find ourselves in the shoes of Europeans during the thirteenth century when the New World was first discovered. However, do we need to be reminded of what lengths explorers were willing to stoop to when it came to finding gold in these new lands?

Lest we forget about the numerous treaties and agreements made with indigenous peoples of the Americas – only to be broken and ignored whenever the promised gold and silver reared its ugly head.

Human nature means that the space race is going to need a governing force. Perhaps it is wise to review what guidance is already in place.

The need for international space law and governance

The truth of the matter is that we already have a significant dependence on outer space. As we consider our reliance on satellites, it is easy to understand the importance of protecting their presence and orbit.

But there are many more assets in space besides satellites. Countless machine-made objects are being launched into space – and much more are planning to be launched.

A space-based asset is crucial to a national overall national security, but many of them also serve civilian projects. Should military assets ever dominate outer space, it would jeopardize the daily living standards of billions of people.

Given how democracy has been declining in the world while more restrictive forms of governments are increasing, installing space laws that protect global space assets should be a significant priority.

It’s disturbing how geopolitical tensions have risen over the past decade and how many are beginning to view space as a potential area of contention among the world’s superpowers.

Current provisions in international space law are sorely lacking

What should alarm us is that current space laws are based on The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which was tailored to address conditions during the cold war. This Treaty was designed to assure the peaceful use of outer space when technological capabilities were a mere fraction of what it is today.

The first provision in this Treaty establishes equal freedom of all nations to utilize outer space. Provisions that follow establish limitations on how this freedom in outer space must be exercised.

The Treaty addresses the military use of outer space and states that no nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are placed in orbit around the planet. The problem lies in a lack of definition of the terms that were used.

The phrase ‘placed in orbit’ does not address the altitude of any said orbit, nor does it establish whether a full rotation is required to be considered a legitimate orbit.

Furthermore, the ‘transit’ of such weapons was intentionally omitted as both the United States and the Soviet Union had every intention of transporting nuclear weapons through space.

Finally, the Treaty only specified nuclear weapons and WMDs. This means that only other forms of modern weapons are exempt from these restrictions.

Counter-space technologies

We are seeing a plethora of commercial satellites getting launched into orbit. It only stands to reason that many are concerned about counter space technologies somehow finding their way on board a few of these corporate space assets.

Counterspace technologies are those that are designed to interfere, disrupt, or even destroy components of adversary space systems. Given the current urgency of the space race, there is good reason to suspect how corporations might sabotage one another’s progress.

Of course, counter space technologies are always a concern regarding national space assets among opposing nations. Comprehensive space law is desperately needed to address these potential scenarios.

When the existing Treaty was drafted, the US and the USSR were pretty much the only players. Now many nations have counter space ability.

Recent disarmament measures

Of course, many bright minds throughout the world were seeing a need for stronger international space law before anyone else. Therefore, several attempts have been made to implement new disarmament measures internationally.

Specifically, these measures were adopted unanimously in 2018 at the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space forum: (a) UN General Assembly resolutions to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS) with transparency and confidence-building measures; (b) a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities submitted by the European Union; (c) China and Russia’s draft Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects; and (d) Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities.

In addition, the United Kingdom has recently announced a proposal for a UN resolution on responsible behaviors throughout outer space.

Unfortunately, the measures that the world’s nations have officially adopted are still non-binding. And they do not operationalize any contained norms and do not even address non-state actors.

Since then, further progress for international guidance on space laws has been difficult at best, as nations haven’t been able to agree on how to proceed any further.

A new culture for space laws are required

Drafting new regulations to firm up current space security and resolve legal ambiguities can no longer be decided on a state-to-state basis.

Progress can only be obtained under a new culture and a fresh new outlook on space governance. This is primarily because the commercialization of space has created a new influential player in how outer space will be utilized.

As many corporations today are more powerful than small nations, their voice will be as large as any in drafting new internal space laws. This simple hurdle cannot be ignored by the world’s political leaders any longer.

The only way to push beyond the existing quagmire is to establish a governing council that includes both state and non-state actors. New institutions must be created as we advance.