Space law hasn’t been changed since 1967 – but the UN aims to update laws and keep space peaceful

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>Space law hasn’t been changed since 1967 – but the UN aims to update laws and keep space peaceful

Activities in space today are far more numerous and complicated compared to 1967, before humans had landed on the moon or Elon Musk had even been born. Two experts explain the need for better laws to keep space peaceful.

The ConversationNovember 26, 2021 · 2:30 PM EST

The International Space Station is a great example of how space has, for the most part, been a peaceful and collaborative international arena.

NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center/FlickrCC BY-NC

On Nov. 15, 2021, Russia destroyed one of its own old satellites using a missile launched from the surface of the Earth, creating a massive debris cloud that's been threateing many space assets, including astronauts aboard the International Space Station. This happened only two weeks after the United Nations General Assembly First Committee formally recognized the vital role that space and space assets play in international efforts to better the human experience — and the risks military activities in space pose to those goals.

The UN First Committee deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community. On Nov. 1, it approved a resolution that creates an open-ended working group. The goals of the group are to assess current and future threats to space operations, determine when behavior may be considered irresponsible, “make recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors” and “contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments” — including a treaty to prevent “an arms race in space.”

We are two space policy experts with specialties in space law and the business of commercial space. We are also the president and vice president at the National Space Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group. It is refreshing to see the UN acknowledge the harsh reality that peace in space remains uncomfortably tenuous. This timely resolution has been approved as activities in space become ever more important and — as shown by the Russian test — tensions continue to rise.

Current actions in space are governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that was developed within the United Nations, seen here. 


Basil D Soufi/WikimediaCommons, CC BY-SA

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty

Outer space is far from a lawless vacuum.

Activities in space are governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is currently ratified by 111 nations. The treaty was negotiated in the shadow of the Cold War when only two nations — the Soviet Union and the US – had spacefaring capabilities.

While the Outer Space Treaty offers broad principles to guide the activities of nations, it does not offer detailed “rules of the road.” Essentially, the treaty assures freedom of exploration and the use of space to all humankind. There are just two caveats to this, and multiple gaps immediately present themselves.

The first caveat states that the moon and other celestial bodies must be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. It omits the rest of space in this blanket prohibition. The only guidance offered in this respect is found in the treaty’s preamble, which recognizes a “common interest” in the “progress of the exploration and use of space for peaceful purposes.” The second caveat says that those conducting activities in space must do so with “due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty.”

A major problem arises from the fact that the treaty does not offer clear definitions for either “peaceful purposes” or “due regard.”

While the Outer Space Treaty does specifically prohibit placing nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction anywhere in space, it does not prohibit the use of conventional weapons in space or the use of ground-based weapons against assets in space. Finally, it is also unclear if some weapons — like China’s new nuclear capable partial-orbit hypersonic missile — should fall under the treaty’s ban.

The vague military limitations built into the treaty leave more than enough room for interpretation to result in conflict.

Nonmilitary satellites, like those used to take images for weather forecasts, can also serve important military functions. 


NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center/Flickr, CC BY

Space is militarized, conflict is possible

Space has been used for military purposes since Germany’s first V2 rocket launch in 1942.

Many early satellites, GPS technology, a Soviet Space Station and even NASA’s space shuttle were all either explicitly developed for or have been used for military purposes.

With increasing commercialization, the lines between military and civilian uses of space are less blurry. Most people are able to identify terrestrial benefits of satellites, like weather forecasts, climate monitoring and internet connectivity, but are unaware that they also increase agricultural yields and monitor human rights violations. The rush to develop a new space economy based on activities in and around Earth and the moon suggests that humanity’s economic dependence on space will only increase.

However, satellites that provide terrestrial benefits could, or already do, serve military functions, as well. We are forced to conclude that the lines between military and civilian uses remain sufficiently indistinct, making a potential conflict more likely than not. Growing commercial operations will also provide opportunities for disputes over operational zones to provoke governmental military responses.

Military testing

While there has not yet been any direct military conflict in space, there has been an escalation of efforts by nations to prove their military prowess in and around space. Russia’s test is only the most recent example. In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite weapon and created an enormous debris cloud that is still causing problems. The International Space Station had to dodge a piece from that Chinese test as recently as Nov. 10, 2021.

Similar demonstrations by the US and India were far less destructive in terms of creating debris, but they were no more welcomed by the international community.

The new UN resolution is important because it sets in motion the development of new norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior. Properly executed, this could go a long way toward providing the guardrails needed to prevent conflict in space.

From guidelines to enforcement

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has been addressing space activities since 1959.

However, the remit of the 95-member committee is to promote international cooperation and study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space. It lacks any ability to enforce the principles and guidelines set forth in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty or even to compel actors into negotiations.

The UN resolution from November 2021 requires the newly created working group to meet two times a year in both 2022 and 2023. While this pace of activity is glacial, compared to the speed of commercial space development, it is a major step in global space policy.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. 

UN announced the presence of IS in almost all provinces of Afghanistan

The UN envoy to Afghanistan said that representatives of the IS cell are located in almost all provinces of the country and “are becoming more active.” She noted that the Taliban are not able to resist the strengthening of the group

The Taliban in power in Afghanistan; (a terrorist group banned in Russia) is unable to resist the expansion of the Islamic State terrorist group; (IG, banned in Russia) on the territory of the country. The head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, announced this at a meeting of the UN Security Council, reports Reuters.

'Another negative development is the Taliban's failure stop the spread of the Islamic State, & mdash; she said.

According to her, now representatives of IS-Khorasan (an offshoot of the Islamic State operating in Afghan territory) is present in almost all provinces and is becoming increasingly active.

At the same time, Lyons noted that the Taliban in the fight against IS use extrajudicial arrests and killings of those whom the Taliban suspects of links with the Islamic State.

The envoy also said that the deteriorating economic situation in Afghanistan could lead to an increase in the illegal trade in drugs, weapons and people. “ The continued paralysis of the banking sector will push the financial system towards the shadow exchange of money, which will only contribute to terrorism, human trafficking and drug smuggling, '' & mdash; she thinks.

In turn, Russia's Permanent Representative to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said that the arrival of Taliban representatives to power did not bring stability to Afghanistan, and new challenges were added to the old problems. “ The new reality that was established in Afghanistan after August 15 did not bring either the Afghans themselves or the international community closer to stabilizing the country, creating on its territory a peaceful, indivisible and free from drugs and crime state. New challenges, connected primarily with the lack of international recognition, '', & mdash; he said.

The Taliban launched an offensive against Afghan government forces after the United States announced the withdrawal of its military contingent from Afghanistan. On August 15, the Taliban captured the country's capital, Kabul, and announced the end of the war with government forces. On the same day, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The Taliban called the restoration of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, a general amnesty and the cessation of drug production as the main directions of their policy.

The Russian side previously promised to support the Taliban in their plans to combat terrorism and eradicate drugs. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out that the Taliban it won't be easy stop drug trafficking.

Subscribe to YouTube RBC Live broadcasts, videos and recordings of programs on our YouTube channel


UN rapporteur emphasizes responsibility to protect ‘vulnerable’ Hazaras

UN rapporteur emphasizes responsibility to protect ‘vulnerable’ Hazaras

The World’s Shirin Jaafari interviewed Fernand de Varennes, UN special rapporteur on minority issues, about the plight of the Hazara people.

Shirin Jaafari

Supporters of a civil society organization hold a demonstration to protest against the killing of coal mine workers by gunmen near the Machh coal field, in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan. 8, 2021. Pakistan’s prime minister Friday appealed to the protesting minority Shiites not to link the burial of coal miners from the Hazara community who were killed by ISIS to his visit to the mourners, saying such a demand amounted to blackmailing the country’s premier.


K.M. Chaudary/AP 


In early January, at least 10 coal miners were brutally killed in southwestern Pakistan.

Witnesses and local security officials said the victims were specifically selected because of their ethnic and religious background. They belonged to a minority group called the Hazaras.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deadly attack.

The incident shocked the community, who say they have been targeted by Sunni extremist groups for years. They say they demand justice and an end to the persecutions.

Related: Hazara community demands justice for slain coal miners in Pakistan

The World’s Shirin Jaafari interviewed Fernand de Varennes, UN special rapporteur on minority issues, to ask about the plight of the Hazara people.

Shirin Jaafari: What is your assessment of the condition of the Hazara communities in different parts of the world? There are communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Fernand de Varennes: It’s difficult for me to answer directly in the sense that I have had no allegations, letters of allegations, in fact, involving the Hazara minority either in Pakistan, Afghanistan or even Iran. In other words, usually as the special rapporteur, as an independent expert with the United Nations, we respond to and we examine more closely situations where we have received allegations of violations of the human rights of different groups, in my case, minorities. 

And until now, it seems from the information that I have been able to assess that no member of the Hazara minority has sent directly any letter of allegation to my mandate. All of that to say, I do have some background information which I have obtained from various sources, but I actually don’t have any in-depth appreciation or understanding of the situation there because my mandate has actually never been asked to intervene at this point.

(Editor’s note: Since this Jan. 16 interview, The World has relayed messages from The World Hazara Council and the Canadian Hazara Humanitarian Services to the special rapporteur.)

A group of miners was killed in Pakistan earlier this month, and ISIS claimed responsibility. In the past, ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups have stated that they target the Hazara communities because of their background, religion and ethnicity. What can be done from your standpoint?

I am aware of a number of situations, including the most recent one, the horrific murder of, I think, 11 miners in Pakistan who were of Hazara background and Shiites. It is clear that the Hazara are being targeted by extremist elements, if you will, such as ISIS, as you mentioned. More recently, there have been, to my knowledge, other incidents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in particular. And this is deeply concerning.

I am concerned that while, very clearly, my own mandate could possibly play a role, I think the United Nations organization itself, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has an important role to play here. And I’m hoping that we will be approached by organizations or individuals of the Hazara community in relation to these incidents.

Why does the community need to reach out to you, specifically, and what happens once you receive those allegations?

It has to be understood that as the special rapporteur or independent experts, we have a mandate from the United Nations. And the mandate that we have is a special report. There is a procedure to look into allegations of violations of human rights. But it is a procedure where we are reactive. We have to usually react to allegations. And so, we have to receive allegations of violations of these human rights.

In the case of the procedure of a mechanism under a special rapporteur, essentially, what we do is once we receive an allegation of violations of human rights, we prepare a diplomatic note, which is sent to the permanent mission, the embassy, if you will, of the government involved in Geneva. And we express our concern, and we ask for the government to clarify what has occurred, what is occurring.

We can issue an international press release expressing our concerns around a certain situation and we can bring this to the attention of the Human Rights Council in our annual report. We can also perhaps be in some cases a little bit more proactive and insist on knowing what the government has done in relation to a situation. But let me be clear. The special rapporteurs can exercise a bit of pressure, if you will, but there are other human rights entities at the United Nations that should be considered and approached.

I have talked to individuals in the Hazara community who expressed deep concerns about the Taliban. The group has carried out atrocities against Hazaras in the past, and those atrocities have been documented by human rights groups. What is your response to those concerns?

As a humanitarian, you know, somebody who has studied these things in the past, I’m going to answer in a general way because I’m not up-to-date necessarily with all of the details of the negotiations going on. I think in any situation where there is a peace agreement being negotiated, one of the groups that tend to be forgotten sometimes are minorities. And minorities are particularly vulnerable in situations of conflict. Once again, without judging on what is occurring in Afghanistan, I don’t have access to the details to comment. I think that in any country which is coming out of conflict, where ethnicity or religion plays a role, it is extremely important.

And I cannot emphasize this point sufficiently. It is extremely important that all the parties involved in the peace negotiations keep in mind the need to protect some of the most vulnerable communities.

If allegations from the communities do reach you, how would you approach the governments and also the different actors in the region, for example, the Taliban?

The way that we have to proceed because we do have a rather strict mandate, if you will, from the United Nations, is that we would approach the government of Afghanistan expressing our concerns in relation to the allegations of breaches, violations that have occurred. So in other words, a bit of diplomatic pressure pointing out that we have received allegations which are taken seriously.

There might be something else in relation to the point that you made in relation to peace agreements; it might be possible to request the special rapporteur to raise the issue of the protection of the Hazara or any other minorities in any future peace agreement or power-sharing agreement. But someone has to approach my mandate and suggest that as special rapporteur, I should probably intervene publicly in the sense of issuing a press release, raising these concerns and also raising the point with the Afghan government.

Back to the attack in Pakistan earlier this month. The government has increased security by putting armed guards and checkpoints at the entrances of Hazara neighborhoods. On the surface, that might sound like a good idea but one activist told me those measures have severely restricted the community’s movements and have led to the “ghettoization” of the community. How do you see these measures?

I would suggest that what is important or the very first step that needs to be taken in any situation where you have murders, assassinations of individuals belonging to a minority is to prosecute and penalize the offenders. You do not isolate, you do not simply put into a closed environment the victims. You need to actually be extremely proactive in identifying and punishing those who are responsible for violations of the rights, including physical violence and even murders or assassinations. This is the way that you ensure the security, the safety and the respect for the human rights of the victims.

So I think once again, without entering into a judgment of the various measures taken by the Pakistan government, essentially, what you need to do is provide a safe and inclusive environment for all individuals who reside in Pakistan. And you do not just try to isolate completely a group from the rest of society, because in a way, that is conceding that those who are committing atrocities can continue to live normal lives, whereas the victims cannot.

Any final point you would like to add?

I think it is important to realize and to make clear and to raise awareness that the treatment of the Hazara is not just atrocities. These are atrocities where you have a group, a minority that is targeted. And minorities are quite often the most vulnerable, even their own governments, sometimes, unfortunately, do not protect them as much as they should. History is full of situations where the minorities are the targets of genocide and atrocities. We can think about the Second World War and the Holocaust in relation to the Jews and the Roma and other minorities.

This situation that is occurring would be, in my opinion, an extremely important area where the United Nations and other human rights organizations should, as a priority, come up and actually raise these matters directly with the authorities involved, because as minorities, the Hazara and other minorities are, well, pretty much defenseless. And if there is one area where human rights and the United Nations and other organizations are supposed to be active and involved, it is to defend those who cannot defend themselves. And to me, that’s why the Hazara are a minority where we have to play a much greater role.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


UN head warns of ‘a generational catastrophe’; Record temperatures in Iraq; Belarus’ president aligns with Russia

UN head warns of 'a generational catastrophe'; Record temperatures in Iraq; Belarus' president aligns with Russia

The World staff

An Indonesian student wears a mask and face shield as a precaution against the coronavirus during a class in Bekasi on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 3, 2020.


Achmad Ibrahim/AP