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This briefing provides an overview of the international legal framework that applies to outer space. With an ever-increasing use of space for both military and commercial purposes, the need to take stock of the existing rules and identify the gaps in regulation is higher than ever before.

The main legal issues for space law today include:

  • The definition and delimitation of space, including the question of where space begins in law.
  • The application of international law and other specific legal regimes in space.
  • The regulation of access to space, through the regulation of radio frequency use and orbital slots.
  • The legal monitoring of how space is used and what objects are launched into space, through a regime requiring the registration of space objects.
  • The issue of liability in space, and the increasing problem of space debris.
  • Initiatives to further enhance the international regulation of space, and close the gaps in the current system.

Where does space law begin?

One of the still hotly-debated topics in international law is the exact definition and delimitation of space.

According to international law, states retain sovereignty over the airspace above their territory – subject to certain aviation laws such as the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention). Article 1 of the Chicago Convention makes this clear by providing that every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory.

This exclusive sovereignty does not extend to space, because according to Article 2 of the Outer Space Treaty, outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

But where does sovereignty over airspace stop, and outer space begin? The exact legal boundary of space is not defined in international law. The practice of states may indicate some options for the boundary of space, but these have not always been consistent.

There is also debate about the use of geostationary orbits – orbits where satellites remain in a fixed point in the sky – because they are a scarce resource, and need to be shared equitably among all states large and small, regardless of their current space capabilities.

International law and space

General international law principles apply in space. But there have been several treaties and conventions adopted to specifically address and regulate the exploration and use of space internationally.

The Outer Space Treaty

The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, covering legal foundations such as the peaceful use of space, the freedom of exploration of space, and the basic responsibility and liability of state for launching space objects.

The Rescue Agreement

The Rescue agreement provides that states shall take all possible steps to rescue and assist astronauts in distress and promptly return them to the launching state. It also provides that states shall, on request, provide assistance to launching states in recovering space objects that return to Earth outside the territory of the launching state.

The Liability Convention

This Convention provides for absolute liability on the part of a launching state to pay compensation for damage caused by its space objects on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft. It also makes launching states liable for damage in space, based on a fault of that state. The Convention also details provisions of the settlement of disputes.

The Registration Convention

This Convention lays down the rules applicable for the registration of space objects, and the open and free access of these registers.

The Moon Agreement

This Agreement expands on the Outer Space Treaty specifically regarding the Moon and other celestial bodies. It provides that those bodies should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, that their environments should not be disrupted, and that the UN should be informed about any station established on those bodies. The Agreement also provides that the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.

Other conventions that are relevant to the regulation of space include those establishing international organisations or institutions with functions relevant to outer space. It is not the purpose for this paper to include all of these here, but these treaties are monitored by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, which supervises the status of those agreements and the parties to them.

Adapting space law for the future

As discussed in the Library Briefing Paper on the Militarisation of Space, achieving a consensus on regulation has been a challenge for the international community for a long time. As many analysts have noted, there is a perceived preference, on all sides, for regulation that promotes freedom of their own action, while curtailing the activities and aspirations of others. Support for arms control in space is often seen as contradictory to the actions and rhetoric of the states with leading space capabilities, such as the US, China, and Russia.

In December 2021, the UN General Assembly adopted some notable Resolutions on outer space, as it has done each year. This includes one Resolution drafted and championed by the UK to take stock of existing international, legal and other normative frameworks concerning threats arising from state behaviours with respect to outer space, and to encourage responsible behaviours in space.

At the Conference on Disarmament, Russia and China have been pushing for a legally-binding treaty on preventing an arms race in space since 2008, with an updated draft treaty proposed in 2014. As evidenced through the voting of General Assembly Resolution 76/23, the US, the UK and other aligned states do not support this initiative. It remains to be seen whether any progress will be made on this initiative, as the stalemate on developing the treaty seems to persist.

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