The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, The Rescue Agreement, The Liability Convention, The Registration Convention and The Moon Agreement. Five treaties, all at least 40 years old, and all (regardless of whether taken individually or as a whole) inadequate for the rocketing pace of space developments. Whilst there have been numerous 'principles' since, declaring various promises and behavioural limits for each signatory State, and despite the UN recently forming a new group tasked with meeting twice yearly in order to keep laws current and space peaceful, nothing has been even close to far reaching enough to keep space activities in order. For example, only two weeks after the U.N. General Assembly First Committee formally recognised the importance of space assets in international efforts to further the human experience and species, Russia blew up one of their old satellites, sending thousands of pieces of space junk shooting across space. Not only was this reckless, not only does this now pose a significant threat to the safety of astronauts and space equipment, but it also certainly doesn't exude 'bettering the human experience' as part of a res nullius/res communis promise so much as claiming dominance and taking a selfish attitude to space assets and exploration. And need I remind you that this was only last month. So it's hardly surprising that many people in the industry bemoan the glacial speed at which developments in Space Law are taking place. It is clear that we need much more regulation and legislation on Space activities, but there are a few very specific reasons why, as I shall now explain.
The Vague Treaty
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty was very good, and certainly fit for purpose, at the time of its formation. It established general guidance to help steer the activities of nations in space. This was especially important at the time, considering we were in the midst of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and the USA being the only two nations on Earth with the ability to travel in space (in hindsight, hostility and space capabilities being restricted to the two biggest enemies really does sound like the script for an Apocalypse movie!). Of course, it was therefore vitally important to try and curtail the possiblity of rash behaviour. The treaty was a big success overall, with 111 having ratified it! The issue, however, is not necessarily that it didn't actually provide strict laws and specific rules to abide by, but rather that the wording was dreadfully vague. For example, only celestial bodies and the Moon are to be reserved exclusively for peaceful purposes. Firstly, we must question why other parts of space are omitted? Secondly, we must recognise that this treaty therefore made it theoretically legal at the time to place weapons in space, so long as they were not on a planet or other celestial body. As space is being militarised currently, and as there haven't been further treaties to specify what is meant and what the limits are on militarisation and aggression in space, it can only be presumed that States have realised this and are now making full use of this gap. Then we turn to the preamble, in which it is mentioned that there is a “common interest” in the “progress of the exploration and use of space for peaceful purposes". Frustratingly, however, no definition is provided for 'common interest' and 'peaceful purposes'. Thus, the legislation, even from the start, is open to ambiguity and warping to fit the definition a State needs these phrases to mean at any one time in order to further their own goals. This room for interpretation is mirrored in the previous point on weapons in space, as whilst the treaty does very specifically ban the use of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass-destruction in space, nothing is mentioned about utilising normal weapons in space or using weapons against space assets. Of course, this is even more problematic as we head towards inevitable militarisation in space (for example, China have recently unveiled a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile which is capable of partial-orbit, as well as a nuclear reactor which is 100 times more powerful than the one NASA planned on using in future space missions. It is unclear currently whether these types of machinary and equipment ought to fall under the ban in the treaty).
Ground Control To Major Jong
Military prowess on Earth is no longer enough for many nations in the modern world, with displays of power being seen in space already. For example, in 2007 China tested an anti-satellite weapon, creating a massive cloud of debris in the process, similar in scale to the recent one created by Russia. Despite 14 years passing since this incident, it is still causing many problems in space with the International Space Station having to dodge a piece of junk from that test as recently as November 2021. Whilst India and the US have also been to blame for creating vast amounts of space junk, the volume is nowhere near as large. However, they still were not received well by the international community as we already have a horrific issue with space junk which is expected to increase 100 fold in the next few years. It's not only nations proudly displaying their space abilities we have to be cautious of, however, as North Korea pose a great threat to space activities. Despite not knowing exactly what the North Korean's have in their arsenal, we do know that they possess chemical and biological weapons, as well as an estimated sixty nuclear weapons. Furthermore, it is predicted that by 2027 they will possess over two hundred nuclear weapons and hundreds more balistic missiles. This is especially worrying given that Russia/Soviet Union collaborated with North Korea from the late 1950's until the 80's in order to develop North Korea's nuclear programme, helping to build a nuclear research reactor and providing missile designs, light-water reactors, and some nuclear fuel. Pakistan also collaborated with the North Korean's from the 70's to the 90's, helping each other to further their balistic and nuclear abilities. Indeed, even China supported North Korea in the 70's, exchanging knowledge with each other and hosting academics in each others country for the purpose of increasing their nuclear might. Given the hostile world we currently face ourselves in, allied with the likes of the US, with us both receiving threats from China, Russia and North Korea, and US-Pakistan ties being at an all-time low, we desperate need more legislation to protect space and ensure the safety of the people and equipment working in space.
Lastly, on a much smaller but still significant point, is the lack of remit of COPUOS. Despite having 95 member states involved in studying and promoting international relations and space development, COPUOS does not have the ability to enforce space regulations from the 1967 Treaty on any nation, nor can it even compel States to become signatories. As mentioned at the start of the article, the U.N Resolution in 2021 created a new group which is required to meet twice yearly in 2022 and 2023. However, it seems we may face much of the same problem as with COPUOS. Without the remit to enforce on States, it's no more useful. And with States like Russia, China and North Korea obviously not signing up to these groups, we must find another way to reign in their behaviour so that we can ensure the safety of those conducting space activities and can continue to keep space 'for the community and common heritage of mankind'.