The authors of the Woomera Manual are trying aim to finish a draft by the beginning of 2020, then allow 12-18 months for
“state engagement.” Air Force photo by A1C Zoe Thacke.
activity and competition in space risks future conflict unless the
international community can define common legal norms for commercial and
military activity in space, legal scholars say.
At least eight
nations are currently involved in trying to define how international law should
govern military operations in space. Scholars from the eight are developing a
comprehensive, unofficial manual defining military and government consensus on
how international law addresses war in space, much as the Tallinn
Manual has done for the application of international law in military
Manual—named for the remote air and space facility in the Australian desert—will
document how nations interpret the brief and rather vague language of the five
major international treaties governing the military use of space, as well as how
they apply other international laws and treaties to space, according to US Air
Force Maj. Susan Trepczynski, the staff judge advocate for the USAF National
Air and Space Intelligence Center.
what law applies [to military operations] in space,” she told a gathering at an
American Bar Association law and national security conference Nov. 1. “We may not know
exactly what it means, but if you’re doing military operations in space, you
know where to look it up and you have to apply it.”
What the manual’s
authors hope to document is how “different states are applying that law in
practice," Trepczynski said, adding that she and the other participants
are working in a voluntary capacity.
former officials and experts from the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, France,
Germany, India, Singapore, and Sweden—as well as a law professor from China—are
taking part in the three-year effort based at the University of Adelaide in
Australia. They are supported by technical experts on space and engineering.
from governments is crucial to the authors’ aim of creating a handbook that
will be useful to practitioners, said University of Adelaide Prof. Melissa de
“To be useful,”
she said, “It has to be supported by
countries: They have to agree that it reflects their views.”
The authors aim
to complete a draft by the beginning of 2020, then allow 12-18 months for
important to us that we get feedback from states, in terms of ‘Does this
actually reflect how you understand the law as it applies to space
operations,’” de Zwart told Air Force Magazine.
The five international
space treaties, all signed between 1967 and 1973, address “broad principles,
not detailed nuanced law that tells you every single thing you’re going to do
in space,” Trepczynski said. When they were signed, the US and Soviet Union
were in the throes of the Cold War and could never have reached agreement on something
much more detailed.
strokes of space law leave a lot of room for state practice,” de Zwart said, so
nations could interpret the law as they saw fit.
Unlike later arms
control deals, which bristle with detail and include voluminous appendices, the
space treaties are very brief—only 20 pages altogether, Trepczynski noted. Gaps
are numerous. As a result, she added, “You have to look at what the rest of
international law says to fill those holes … You look at the UN Charter and the
Law of Armed Conflict” and see how they apply.
treaties’ provisions have been largely left behind by the enormous
transformation wrought in how space is used.
activities have been a part of what’s going on in space since the very beginning,”
Trepczynski said. “What’s changed is what else is going on up there … the
evolution in the importance of the domain to everyday life” for communication,
navigation, and other purposes.
pervasive in daily life in a way it wasn‘t when the space age started,”
Trepczynski said, “and in a way it wasn‘t when the treaties were written.”
commercial use of satellites to track shipments, monitor crops, aid
communication and navigation, and more mean Woomera authors must weigh broader
elements of the space treaties, said Prof. Jack Beard, from the University of
For example, the
Outer Space Treaty states that nations are responsible for “national activities”
in space—whether those are governmental or not, Beard said. “The launching
state is liable for any damage caused by an object it launches. But who is the
‘launching state’ when the [government of the United Kingdom] pays a US company
to launch a satellite from a facility on Australian territory?”
It’s also unclear
which nation has “the broader international responsibility … and the related duty”
to supervise the object once it’s in orbit, he said.
The authors aim
to clarify “these and other space law issues that have civilian aspects but are
also relevant to military operations.”
endeavors will be still more complex. “There’s no sovereignty over celestial
bodies” under the law, Beard explained. “You can’t claim dominion or
sovereignty” over an asteroid or a planet. “But what about mining? Can you claim ownership over resources once
they’ve been extracted?”
A research probe
has already landed on an asteroid. If there are valuable resources in space, he
adds, “they will be exploited ... It’s only a matter of time.”
law, the world risks commercial competition spilling over into direct state-to-state
“There’s never been a situation where humans have gone somewhere new and not
got into conflict,” Beard said. “That’s why we need to clarify how existing
space law and the law of armed conflict would govern future military operations
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