A Future for Space Law Participation in Africa

Written by Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty and Olaoluwa Oluwanifemi Awe

African team receiving the runner-up award at the 2019 Manfred Lachs Moot Court Competition
African team receiving the runner-up award at the 2019 Manfred Lachs Moot Court Competition. Photo by Joseph Ibeh / Space in Africa

When a few of us sought to get the International Institute of Space Law’s Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot competition to include an African regional round in 2011, it was really personal networks that we used to get the initial schools to participate and it was hard to contemplate how to ensure long term sustainability for African participation in the global contest. Now, new schools are coming on board every year, despite the constant challenges, and not only have African teams reached the world finals on at least 3 occasions, but took home the trophy in 2018 at the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany.

However, more awareness is needed as to why participation in space contests is important and why students, particularly career-focused law students, should care about something where there seems to be no immediate market for this knowledge. In Nigeria for instance, unsurprisingly, only a handful of law firms are aware of space law as a practice. At this stage, despite that the Manfred Lachs is a fun and worthwhile activity for students, it’s most beneficial for engaging with international audiences and getting international exposure, which is fantastic for building African prestige. But, more benefits could be garnered. Importantly, after African students have now become recognized as players in this space, despite the lack of resources and lack of academic programs to support space law education on the continent, the next step is to ask two questions, how do we address the very practical need for Africa to meaningfully contribute to the development and implementation of law in support of an equitable and prosperous space future? This may not happen through gathering more Public International Law litigation experience and secondly to be able to do that, policy and decision-makers on the continent must be able to see the value of spatial data for decision making.

At the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative Space Advisory project, and in partnership with Space in Africa, the Lagos Court of Arbitration and the Outer Space Institute, we are establishing a Space Governance Innovation Contest that seeks to go further in progressing international space law because it’s focused on instrument drafting and not litigation. With the innovation contest, participants can work to find models to adapt from other international law instruments and legal principles and concepts that may be relevant to address certain issues relevant to space activities. This contest is inspired by the Stockholm Treaty Lab innovation contest, which sought to crowdsource ideas to stimulate a green economy through international law.

We have left open what problem space to address in this space law innovation contest but as Egan et al (2009) put it, the kinds of agreements needed can regulate the activities of space through creating enforcement mechanisms, addressing liability allocation and other legal and physical realities of space activities considering that objects move, information is gathered and transmitted, resources must be discovered, contracts entered into and torts committed. Examples of space law instruments established to derive inspiration from include:

  • The UNIDROIT Protocol to the Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment on Matters specific to Space Assets to facilitate the financing of space assets.
  • Model multilateral agreements in furtherance of global space exploration strategies.
  • The International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement.
  • The Permanent Court of Arbitrations Optional Rules of Arbitration of Disputes relating to Outer Space Activities.
  • Resolutions that set forth environmental or sustainability policies.

At the same time, there is an opportunity for more futuristic thinking for challenges that have not yet become a reality. For instance, participants can decide whether to allow the private sector to set the regulatory and policy agenda for the search for resources or to foster a regulatory agenda that benefits humanity as a whole, thinking of developing potential future space benefit-sharing regimes.

At ASU, we are leading the Psyche mission to the first metal asteroid, which raises questions as to what we do with the information we find out about off earth resources when follow-on missions, possibly by consortiums of private actors, get to the asteroid. What if, as speculated, we unearth valuable resources? We need non-classic perspectives to formulate global regimes to manage these future issues.

Environmental law provides interesting models for this and experts in resource allocation theory, particularly from developing country perspectives may have good insights to bring to bear. We hope that through the innovation contest experts in investment will, for instance, find provisions and wording that could sustainably and equitably stimulate a space economy or constitutional experts would look at viable provisions that could govern an off-earth society based not just on western values and principles, but taking the best examples from all over the world! Other important priorities for new instruments, provisions and agreements include consideration of space debris, space situational awareness or space traffic management, safe and secure technology sharing and transfer, and the protection of intellectual property and patents.

This will be relevant in the short term as the international space sector increasingly looks for models that represent the views of a diverse array of future and potential space actors. African participation in the Manfred Lachs should certainly increase, to build up the capacity to litigate potential Public International Law questions, but the legal issues that are faced by space actors today are not only of a PIL nature, but rather consider more mundane and everyday issues including formulating principles for open idea sharing, and protection of intellectual property; creating good research relationships and basic governing of interactions. Africa certainly has a role to play in ensuring that entrenched perspectives that only benefit some do not become the everyday and mundane.

Finally and most important, alongside space law development, developing capacity in policy dimensions is also crucial for the future of Africa. There is currently a reluctance of national government policy officials to work with space data services. However, space data can be used to create a smarter government and toward making smarter investment decisions.

Visit the contest webpage to learn more.


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