The United Nations wants to update "space law"

(209 kilometers)

With everything else that’s going on in the world these days, it’s somewhat surprising that the United Nations General Assembly First Committee would dedicate its attention to questions of “space law.” That is to say, the “rules of the road” for countries engaging in space exploration and presumably the regulations they might impose on them. But that’s what has happened just in the past few weeks. A draft resolution was approved by the committee that would bind the member nations to agreements regarding preventing “an arms race in space” and to international law.

The First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) approved five draft resolutions today aimed at preventing an arms race in outer space, as it continued the action phase of its session…

The Committee approved — by a recorded vote of 163 in favour to 8 against (China, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Nicaragua, Russian Federation, Syria, Venezuela), with 9 abstentions (Armenia, Belarus, Comoros, Djibouti, India, Israel, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe) — the draft resolution “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours”. By one provision of that text, the General Assembly would affirm that all States must conduct their activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, in conformity with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations.

All of this is still rather vague, but it reflects the United Nations continuing belief that they can somehow dictate the actions of member nations whether they agree with the principles in question or not. Plenty of that happens right down here on the surface of the earth and even up in the skies. But when the UN decides to extend their sphere of command (which doesn’t really exist beyond the consent of the individual members) out into the cosmos, I really have to start rolling my eyes.

There are plenty of problems with this concept right out of the gate, but at the highest level you’re really talking about “space law.” What sort of laws exist (if any) that regulate the activities of space-faring nations once they leave the atmosphere? In reality, you can make the argument that the answer is “none.” We’ve gotten pretty good at establishing international norms and following some rules regarding what happens on the surface of our planet (until we decide to go to war), but there aren’t any cops, lawyers or judges cruising around in orbit or on the moon, thankfully (at least yet). So-called space law is more of a hypothetical concept than anything with the muscle of a court system behind it.

But not everyone agrees with that assessment. Government Executive just published a letter from two “space policy experts” (Michelle L.D. Hanlon Greg Autry) who believe that it’s high time to settle these legal questions and get everyone in line. And they base a lot of their analysis on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

The U.N. First Committee deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community. On Nov. 1, it approved a resolution that creates an open-ended working group. The goals of the group are to assess current and future threats to space operations, determine when behavior may be considered irresponsible, “make recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors,” and “contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments” – including a treaty to prevent “an arms race in space.”

We are two space policy experts with specialties in space law and the business of commercial space. We are also the president and vice president at the National Space Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group. It is refreshing to see the U.N. acknowledge the harsh reality that peace in space remains uncomfortably tenuous. This timely resolution has been approved as activities in space become ever more important and – as shown by the Russian test – tensions continue to rise.

Hanlon and Autry are talking about the First Committee creating a set of rules for activities in space that might establish “possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors,” as well as “the negotiation of legally binding instruments.” I’m sure you can see where this is going. They want to create yet another set of rules and try to enforce them on the applicable nations.

But as the authors themselves admit later in the article, there are significant problems with such a proposal. First of all, the 1967 treaty was incredibly vague in terms of what you could or couldn’t do in space. Recall that only the United States and the Soviet Union were in space at the time. We hadn’t even put a man on the moon yet. Everyone was just sort of making up the rules as they went along. Yes, more than one hundred nations including America, the Russians and the Chinese eventually signed on, but the vast majority of them still don’t have space programs to this day so it wouldn’t apply to them.

Also, despite having signed onto that treaty, most of us began violating it almost immediately and continue to do so to this day. You can’t prevent an “arms race in space” because it’s already going on and has been for quite some time now. We’re not up to the point of a real-life Luke Skywalker firing plasma beams from a SpaceX capsule at a Russian Soyuz, but we’re not that far away. And we already use some of our satellites for military purposes including spying and targeting. Multiple countries now have missiles that can strike targets in space. And if you wanted to arrest someone for violating the agreement I challenge you to find a court that could hear the case and enforce its decision.

On top of that, go back and read the excerpt from the recently signed UN amendment again and pay specific attention to the list of countries that signed off on it. Do you notice any names missing? Here’s a partial list: China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela. It’s all of our adversaries or at least the most powerful ones. Of course the United States signed it because Joe Biden will sign off on most anything the United Nations dreams up, but that doesn’t mean the next president would honor it. (See: Trump, Donald J.) The actual bad guys in the world who have the technical ability to cause any issues in orbit are already ignoring this nonsense and will not be bound by it. And neither should the United States.

Now if you want to raise money to launch a few “space lawyers” into orbit for an extended stay, I might kick in a few bucks. I’m sure Elon Musk could make room in one of his Dragon cargo capsules.