Outer space for ‘peaceful purposes’
As far back as 1967, the UN recognised “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes”. It also declared that the moon and celestial bodies must be explored and used “exclusively for peaceful purposes”.
Most space law scholars would interpret this as prohibiting military activities in outer space. But this was not followed by those who actually had space capability.
It is now clear that space has been used for military activities almost from the start of the space age.
Some of this may be termed passive military activities in outer space. This includes the provision of supporting communications, imaging and location assistance through satellite technology.
But many countries are now increasingly using space technology as part of active engagement in the conduct of armed conflict on land, at sea and in the air in the terrestrial context. The use of GPS-satellite guided missiles is now common-place in modern conflicts.
Even more worrying, recent trends in technological development have underlined that serious threats to global security exist in this final frontier. This is due to the strategic value of outer space and the dependence of militaries on space assets for their operations.
No peace deal, yet
The law of armed conflict is a major source of restraint regarding military operations on Earth. But there is barely any reference to outer space in many of the treaties that codify that body of law.
Efforts to broker international agreement to stem the weaponisation of outer space, or agree on rules to safeguard space sustainability and security, have so far stalled.
An agreed statement and clarification of the limitations international law places on the military use of outer space is now an urgent priority.
In this regard, a group of more than 40 international experts are about to embark on a three-year research project that will culminate in a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space ([MILAMOShttps://www.mcgill.ca/milamos/home).
The group will include ourselves and other lawyers, scientists, diplomats, military personnel and technicians, all working in their personal capacity. The vision of the MILAMOS Project is to ensure space activities are conducted in accordance with the rule of law.
This will involve a consideration of the existing international rules on outer space. It will also involve integration with international humanitarian law and the rules prohibiting the use of force.
The drafting of the rules will involve many meetings, heated discussions and compromises. It is envisaged that at the end of the project the applicable rules will be agreed on the basis of consensus.
The MILAMOS Project is not an effort to condone warfare in outer space.
On the contrary, it seeks to prevent armed conflict and minimise the devastating impact that space technology and military operations may have on the long-term and peaceful use of outer space.
Steven Freeland, Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University; Dale Stephens, Associate Professor of Law, University of Adelaide, and Ram S. Jakhu, Director, Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University