What is Space Law and Policy?
Any discussion or enquiry into space law usually begins with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This treaty has been described as a ‘cornerstone’ or ‘Magna Carta’ of outer space. It provides the foundational legal framework upon which the space governance regime has been built. Many of its provisions, Articles I-IV and VI especially, are now considered to be customary international law which generally means that even states not party to the Outer Space Treaty have an obligation to respect or abide by the provision. The Outer Space Treaty was further developed by three subsequent treaties, the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, and the Registration Convention. The Moon Agreement is the fifth of the United Nations space law treaties, but it is largely considered a ‘failed’ treaty given the low number of States Parties to the treaty. However, it is inaccurate to call it a ‘dead’ treaty as it continues to pick up new parties such as Venezuela in 2016 and Armenia in 2018. Additionally, the treaty is in force and is therefore binding upon its parties.
Beyond the space treaties there are a few other treaties such as the ‘Partial Test Ban Treaty’ of 1963 which also has application in outer space, as well as a host of UN Resolutions and so-called ‘soft law’ instruments which also have applications and relevance to activities in outer space. Additionally, many states have national legislation regarding activities in outer space, such as the UK’s Outer Space Act 1986 and Space Industry Act 2018. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), secretariat to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), has an excellent resource on space law, including texts of the treaties and relevant UN Resolutions and documents on it’s website, here.
The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) is the UN Committee responsible for international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. It has two subcommittees, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, and the Legal Subcommittee. These meet annually in Vienna. UNCOPUOS was the originator of the five ‘United Nations’ Treaties on Outer Space (the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Registration Convention, the Liability Convention and the Moon Agreement.) It continues to be an important focal point for the discussion of international issues of space governance and continues to grow in membership. More details can be found here.
Policy itself is not an easy term to define but it can essentially be defined as a course of action or inaction which provides a context and guidance for future decision making. Space policy is a subset of policy in general and helps to set the focus and direction of a state’s space efforts. Space policy overlaps, intertwines and interacts with general science, technical and industrial policy. There are also significant security interests in the space sector, both as a tool for the armed forces (surveillance, communications, global navigation etc) but also as a national infrastructure asset that requires protection. As space becomes increasingly important in our daily lives and for the economy space policy is gaining increasing prominence, importance and relevance.
Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (adopted 27 January 1967, entered into force 10 October 1967) 610 UNTS 205 (Outer Space Treaty)
Stephan Hobe, Bernhard Schmidt-Tedd and Kai-Uwe Schrogl eds., Cologne Commentary on Space Law, vol 1 (1st edn, Carl Heymanns Verlag, 2009), 14; Francis Lyall and Paul B. Larsen Space Law: A Treatise (Ashgate 2009), 53; I.H.Ph. Diederiks-Verschoor and V. Kopal, An Introduction to Space Law (3rd edn, Kluwer Law International, 2008), 3
Francis Lyall and Paul B. Larsen Space Law: A Treatise (Ashgate 2009), 54, 71; Peter Malanczuk, Akehurst’s Modern Introduction to International Law (7th edn, Routledge 1997), 206
Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (adopted 22 April 1968, entered into force 3 December 1968) 672 UNTS 119 (Rescue Agreement)
Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (adopted 29 March 1972, entered into force 1 September 1972) 961 UNTS 187 (Liability Convention)
Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (adopted 14 January 1975, entered into force 15 September 1976) 1023 UNTS 15 (Registration Convention)
Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (adopted 18 December 1979, entered into force 11 July 1984) 1363 UNTS 3 (Moon Agreement)
‘Status of International Agreements Relating to Activities in Outer Space as at 1 January 2018’ – UN Doc A/AC.105/C.2/2018/CRP.3 - http://www.unoosa.org/documents/pdf/spacelaw/treatystatus/AC105_C2_2018_CRP03E.pdf
Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water (adopted 5 August 1963, entered into force 10 October 1963) 480 UNTS 43 (Partial Test Ban Treaty)
Michael Hill, The Public Policy Process (5th edn., Pearson-Longman 2009), 14-21