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 1967 Outer Space Treaty
Outer space is far from a lawless vacuum.
While the Outer Space Treaty offers broad principles to guide the activities of nations, it does not offer detailed “rules of the road.” Essentially, the treaty assures freedom of exploration and use of space to all humankind. There are just two caveats to this, and multiple gaps immediately present themselves.
The first caveat states that the moon and other celestial bodies must be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. It omits the rest of space in this blanket prohibition. The only guidance offered in this respect is found in the treaty’s preamble, which recognizes a “common interest” in the “progress of the exploration and use of space for peaceful purposes.” The second caveat says that those conducting activities in 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 offer clear definitions for either “peaceful purposes” or “due regard.”
The vague military limitations built into the treaty leave more than enough room for interpretation to result in conflict.
Space is militarized, conflict is possible
With increasing commercialization, the lines between military and civilian uses of space are less blurry. Most people are able to identify terrestrial benefits of satellites like weather forecasts, climate monitoring and internet connectivity but are unaware that they also increase agricultural yields and monitor human rights violations.
However, satellites that provide terrestrial benefits could or already do serve military functions as well. We are forced to conclude that the lines between military and civilian uses remain sufficiently indistinct to make a potential conflict more likely than not. Growing commercial operations will also provide opportunities for disputes over operational zones to provoke governmental military responses.
The new U.N. resolution is important because it sets in motion the development of new norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior. Properly executed, this could go a long way toward providing the guardrails needed to prevent conflict in space.
From guidelines to enforcement
The U.N. resolution from November 2021 requires the newly created working group to meet two times a year in both 2022 and 2023. While this pace of activity is glacial compared with the speed of commercial space development, it is a major step in global space policy.
Michelle L.D. Hanlon is a professor of air and space law at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Hanlon serves as 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 at ABH Space Law. Greg Autry is a clinical professor of space leadership, policy and business at Arizona State University in Tempe. Autry receives funding from the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Space Commerce. University of Oxford. Autry serves as Vice President in the National Space Society and served at NASA.
The rules of space haven’t been updated in 50 years, and the UN says it’s time