Since the Outer Space Treaty entered into force on 10 October 1967, much has changed about how states use outer space. At its 54th anniversary, the Outer Space Treaty faces significant challenges, such as deepened militarization of outer space, which the APLN has brought attention to before. For this edition of the Pulse, the APLN invited three experts on space policy to give their views on the challenges the Outer Space Treaty is facing, and how they should be resolved.
Professor at Institute of International Law & Lead Expert (Air and Space Law) at Academy of International Law and Global Governance, Wuhan University.
During the last few decades, outer space has been militarised in an incremental manner, accumulating to some space powers explicitly recognising space as a “warfighting domain.” Recent years have also witnessed the surge of a second wave of lunar and deep-space exploration and use, in which the utilization of abiotic resources in outer space is anticipated.
The OST is inadequate to prevent space from becoming reduced to another domain of conflict, or to regulate mineral activities in outer space. The international community should fill the lacunae of the OST in these two aspects so as to maintain international peace and security and to promote the co-progressive development of the human race.
Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Director, Center for Security, Strategy & Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation based in New Delhi.
The Outer Space Treaty (OST) has been largely successful in maintaining the sanctity of outer space, but the treaty is beginning to show its age. It has many inadequacies and loopholes.
One, expansive interpretations of the Treaty by some states are pushing the drive towards space weaponisation. The loose interpretation of the peaceful use of space is a case in point. Today, the distinction between two key terms – militarisation and weaponisation – is becoming more problematic than ever, and many states interpret them according to narrow national interests.
A second major challenge is that the OST only prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); it does not restrict non-WMD weapons, or even define what a “space weapon” is. Moreover, the understanding of peaceful use of space has gone from “non-aggressive” to “non-destructive” which could mean that the development and use of counter-space capabilities with “non-destructive” technologies is allowed, even if they interfere with space activities of others.
We need more effective rules that can address counter-space technologies and activities like on-orbit satellite servicing or rendezvous proximity operations to ensure safe and continued access to outer space. Legally binding measures developed through an inclusive process is ideal but almost impossible in the prevailing international political climate. A good place to start would be political agreements in the form of Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs). These could facilitate more binding agreements in the future.
Research member of the Verification and Monitoring team at The Verification Research at the Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) in London
Fifty-four years after the Outer Space Treaty (OST) entered into force, developing and strengthening legislative, regulatory and normative frameworks relating to outer space behaviours remains incredibly important.
Despite a drastic change in what human activities in outer space look like and what we use it for, the OST still plays a key role in preventing the use or deployment of WMDs there.
However, as more actors populate space with a diverse range of goals, challenges are emerging that the OST was not designed to address.
The Treaty’s value, in my view, is in what it sought to represent: the responsible and equitable use and exploration of outer space. Below I make three recommendations to reinforce its ‘spirit’, both beyond and within its framework.
- Space policy making should move beyond siloed approaches: processes in Geneva and Vienna should be closely interlinked.
- States should be encouraged to adhere to existing regulation, such as the Registration Convention, and articles of the OST such as the Liability Convention.
- Space issues are varied and time-sensitive. Incremental, implementable and impactful policy instruments should be developed collaboratively, and supported through awareness raising and capacity building campaigns.
Almudena Azcárate Ortega
Associate Researcher – Space & Missiles in the Weapons of Mass Destruction & Other Strategic Weapons Programme at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty has served as the framework for all other existing space law. However, it is a treaty of principles, which has allowed States a lot of freedom of action and room for interpretation. An increasing number of States have become spacefaring, and commercial actors have emerged, which shows that while the OST is a good foundation for space law, it is by no means perfect. Some challenges of the OST are:
- No uniform understanding of key concepts: what is a weapon? Or harmful interference? What are peaceful purposes? States have generally interpreted these concepts in whatever manner was more advantageous for their respective domestic policies.
- New actors and technologies: the drafters of the OST could not have predicted how drastically the space domain would change. Space has become essential for all humankind, regardless of whether a State is spacefaring or not, and States are no longer the only players. Currently 80% of all space activity is commercial.
The international community must ensure that policies and regulations relating to space address these realities. Firstly, by fostering common understanding, through increased communication and transparency, and secondly by taking the voices of new actors into account when determining regulations.