Why international law matters in outer space – Part 1

Most of us don’t think about outer space when we think of international law, but the technologies that allow us to expand our exploration and use of our space environment also drive our modern global society, and international law is at the cross section.  Our daily activities, from email, phone calls and Facebook to every automatic bank transaction you make, are dependent on satellite technologies. When you take a plane, the air traffic control is dependent on GPS. Even disaster management is dependent on satellite imaging.

In this two-part blog post, I want to introduce the key aspects of why international law matters in outer space, the first part focusing on civilian and commercial activities in space, and the second on military activities.

The space environment is often described as increasingly “congested, contested and competitive“, as was reported to the UN General Assembly’s First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) in 2013.

Congested because there are more and more States becoming “space faring nations”, and more and more satellites are launched each year. Currently there are about 1,200 operational satellites orbiting above us, as well as half a million pieces of “space junk”, including debris from various collisions and left-over rocket pieces, but also decommissioned satellites that have run out of fuel. The film “Gravity”, for all its shortcomings, painted the scenario for us of the risks involved with space debris. Our propensity to trash our natural environment has spread out into space.

Contested because although space is big, our near-Earth environment where satellites can fall into useful orbital paths, is limited. Every space object that is launched must be registered according to the 1974 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, and in order to “claim” an orbital slot and a frequency band on which to send it’s signals back to earth, and claim a right to non-interference with that slot, satellites must be registered with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). But the most interesting orbits for internet and communications are geostationary, meaning that a satellite orbits the Earth at the same rate as the spin of the Earth, so that it looks like it’s stationary above one point. These orbits are focused around the equator, but obviously it has not been the Equatorial States who have been launching satellites over the last few decades. Since 1976 these and other developing nations have been protesting that their potential access to space is extremely limited by the over-use of limited natural resources, namely the orbital slots and radio frequencies, by a small number of Western States.

Competitive because as you may have noticed it’s no longer just States launching things into space, and attempting to outdo each other with high value technologies, there are now lots of commercial entities entering the space market. Elon Musk’s visionary SpaceX company has already shuttled supplies to the International Space Station and hopes to shuttle astronauts as well; Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise hopes to take tourists into zero-gravity; Google bought a start-up satellite company called Skybox which it intends to use to provide continuous global internet access everywhere on the planet, partly in response to the garnering success of a company called O3B (Other Three Billion), which aims to provide internet to remote and less affluent parts of the world. Telecommunications companies procure, launch and operate satellites at huge costs and with huge insurances to cover possible liability if something goes wrong. Moreover, there are entities showing interest in potential technologies like mining asteroids or the moon for precious resources, and we’re not too far off that becoming a reality.

With technologies developing so rapidly, and the so-called “democratization of space”, how does international law regulate this congested, contested and competitive environment?

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Four women at the top of the International Criminal Court – an international first

​New ICC President Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi (Argentina) ©ICC-CPI

Something happened last week that almost seems to have slipped by unnoticed: the International Criminal Court (ICC) has become the first international court entirely headed up by women. On Tuesday March 11, just days after International Women’s Day, the judges of the ICC elected from among their midst the court’s first female President, Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi from Argentina. Not only that, but she is joined by two women in the rest of the presidency; is Judge Joyce Aluoch from Kenya has been elected First Vice President, and Judge Kuniko Ozaki from Japan has been elected Second Vice President. And since 2012 Fatou Bensouda, from the Gambia, has held the office of Chief Prosecutor, meaning that now all the leading positions of the court are held by women.

Women have presided over international courts before; Gabrielle Kirk McDonald was the first woman to preside over an international criminal tribunal at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), Navi Pillay presided over the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and Dame Rosalyn Higgins presided over the International Court of Justice from 2006 to 2009. However there have never been this many women in the top positions of an international court. At one point the ICTY had women presiding (Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald), as Chief Prosecutor (Louise Arbour) and as Registrar (Dorothee de Sampayo Garrido-Nijgh), however it has always had a vast majority of men on the benches.

The importance of having women in these leading positions is evidenced by the fact that some issues to do with gender violence have only come to the forefront in decisions influenced by women such as Navi Pillay, later judge at the ICC (under whose inspirational guidance I was privileged to spend some time as an intern) and recently retired UN Human Rights Commissioner. During her time at the ICTR, it was the attention she paid to evidence being presented about acts of sexual violence targeting Tutsi women, that led to the inclusion of rape as an act of genocide in the well-known Akayesu judgement. She has stated that she recognised the evidence as representing something more serious and specific than the way in which it was characterised by the prosecutors.

Indeed, this International Women’s Day the ICC pubished a press release reaffirming “its commitment to accountability for perpetrators of sexual and gender-based crimes.”

However there was no celebration nor even mention of this important, perhaps historical election of an all-female presidency in the ICC’s own press release naming Judge Fernández de Gurmendi as the new President. The fact that it has also gone unnoticed in the media is disappointing. The only media statement I could find highlighting this was from the Hirondelle News Agency, based in Arusha, Rwanda and focusing on issues of international justice. Continue reading