Humankind has for decades been fixated with the vast extra-terrestrial expanse located approximately 90-110 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. This is attributed to “humanity’s inherent drive to explore, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then push further.” This innate desire is fuelled by the collective understanding of the benefits and importance of engaging in outer space exploration.
As with any activity even here on Earth, this exploration is not without regulation. Exploration must necessarily fall within the ambit of a field of international law aptly named ‘space law’. According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) space law is “the body of law applicable to and governing space-related activities”. To this end, there are five international treaties and agreements that govern activities in space.
The Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement, the Liability Convention, the Registration Convention and the Rescue Agreement all directly inform the legal norms which apply to the exploration and use of outer space. The body of space law, however, also encompasses other regulatory frameworks which may, in an indirect or broader way, be relevant to space activities e.g. the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Convention and Radio Regulations which oversee the assignment of radio frequencies and spectrum/orbits for satellite technology.
Why then is space law particularly important to outer space exploration? UNOOSA surmises that the cardinal goal of space law is to ensure a rational and responsible approach to the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit of all mankind, as articulated in the Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty. Outer space is considered a ‘common heritage’ meaning it does not belong to anyone in particular but to all humanity collectively. Standardization of the legal principles that apply to space exploitation will allow us to use the outer space resource more sustainably to benefit even the generations to come.
These legal provisions address a variety of matters ranging from the preservation of space and Earth environment, liability for damages caused by space objects, settlement of disputes, protection of national interests, rescue of astronauts, sharing of information about potential dangers in outer space, use of space-related technologies and international cooperation. The latter point is particularly pertinent because of the fundamentally international nature of space activities.
In light of this, the Secure World Foundation (SWF) corroborates the fact that a State’s stance towards outer space activities must also include considerations of its relationships with other States and international organizations. As already mentioned, collaboration will allow a coordinated and sustainable approach to space activities, and it flows from this that to achieve sustainability space activities need to rest on sound policies and clearly formulated international agreements, laws and codes. States are also required to develop their own national frameworks to govern the activities of both governmental and non-governmental entities.
The SWF further notes that national space policies are the basis of a State’s space efforts, which policy will dictate the direction and nature that these efforts will take. Space Policy is pursuantly denoted as a subset of overall science, technical and industrial policies pertaining to space. Such policies must be analysed in accordance with the prevailing space treaties to ensure State actions in outer space are in accordance with international law to avoid sanctions, as well as noting where regulatory lacunae or gaps exist for possible development.
Space in Africa is set to double its effort in increasing knowledge resources and capacity in Space Law and Policy with the nuances of the African context. Over the next few weeks and leading up to the release of the African Space Industry Report, 2020 Edition, we shall publish a series of editorials aimed at investigating and shedding more light on the regulatory scenery and challenges affecting the scale of the African space industry, giving greater legal understanding to the obviously technical nature of space endeavours.
The series will explore national space policies, regulatory regimes such as landing permits and licenses required for commercial satellite operators and earth stations, privacy issues and geospatial data, use of TV White Spaces and spectrum allocation and other emerging policy areas in Africa.
To keep up with the rapidly developing industry trends, this series will also serve as a wake-up call for African nations to build capacity in space law and policies to foster a sustainable, coordinated and unfettered expedition into the stars and beyond.
Ruvimbo is a graduate of Law from the University of Pretoria and serves as the National Point of Contact for Zimbabwe at the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). She coached the Winning Team of the Manfred Lachs Moot Court World Finals Competition 2018 in Bremen, Germany, held during the 68th International Astronautical Congress.