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UN instruments on outer space - a remnant of the past, headed to the future

29.6.2017 14.20

International space law is based on five instruments concluded within the framework of the United Nations in the 1960s: Outer Space Treaty - the constitution of space activities

The Outer Space Treaty, concluded in 1967, is the most significant of all agreements concerning outer space. Other instruments supplement its provisions. Over 100 states, including Finland, have joined the treaty.
The objective of the Outer Space Treaty is to guarantee all states with free and equal rights to space exploration and use. The states are obligated to work in collaboration and promote the openness of space activities. The treaty emphasises using space for peaceful purposes and unambiguously bans states from launching weapons of mass destruction into outer space.

Under the treaty, states bear international responsibility for national space activities, and the space activities carried on by private actors require the authorisation and supervision of the relevant state.

Liability Convention safeguards the position of an injured party

The objective of the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, adopted in 1972, was to ensure fair compensation for damages. Around 100 nations, including Finland, have joined the Convention.

According to the Convention, the state that has launched the space object is liable to compensate for any damages caused by the space object.  Compensation is sought from the launching nation through diplomatic channels.

Registration Convention helps obtaining information

The Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space was adopted in 1975. Over 60 states have become party to it. Finland is currently making preparations for joining the Convention.

The Registration Convention obligates the launching state to record the launched space objects in a register at the national level. The Secretary-General of the United Nations keeps an international public register of space objects. The basic information of the space object, its purpose and coordinates in outer space are entered into the register. 

Rescue Agreement helps astronauts in distress

The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, concluded in 1968, specifies the regulation concerning astronauts in the Outer Space Treaty. Around 100 nations, incl. Finland, have joined the Convention.

Under the Agreement, states must render assistance to astronauts in distress in their territory and return the astronauts to the launching state without delay. State parties must inform the launching state of space objects that have landed in its territory and return them upon request.

Moon Treaty – the black horse of outer space instruments?

The Moon Treaty was prepared in the 1970s to safeguard the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies in a manner that serves the common interest. According to the Treaty, the Moon may only be used for peaceful purposes. The Treaty provides that the Moon or its territories or natural resources may not be declared as the property of one or more states. It also pays attention to protecting the environment of the Moon.

Fewer than 20 states have joined the Moon Treaty, and it has not been ratified by any significant state engaging in space exploration. Nonetheless, the principles of the Moon Treaty have been reintroduced into international discussion as a result of a growing interest in the exploitation of natural resources in outer space.

What comes next: new instruments or thematic principles?

There is ongoing discussion on updating the UN instruments on outer space so that they would conform to the changed field of actors and to reduce ambiguity in the provisions of the instruments. However, it has not been possible to find a common will for this work. The principles laid down in the Outer Space Treaty on the joint use of outer space are also still considered fairly viable and changing them has not been considered necessary.

Nonetheless, new operators, including small companies, new technology and industries, such as cube satellites, space tourism and space mines, as well as congestion in certain orbits and increasing amount of space debris, are causing challenges for which the provisions of the instruments on outer space provide no answer.

Indeed, preparing international recommendations on certain themes, such as space debris or remote sensing, either in the UN or on some other international forums, has been noted to provide a functional means to supplement the provisions in the instruments.  As outer space is common property, international discussion on shared rules will continue to be lively in the future.

Maija Lönnqvist, Senior Legal Counsel

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