A Long Failure and the Need to Revamp Space Laws and Conventions
Introduction Space laws are one of the most neglected fields in the legal world. Since the launch of revolutionary Sputnik 1, there had not been much progress. But in today’s world where concepts such as space warfare has evolved and where part of the security and economy of the countries relies upon space technology, there is an evident… Read More »
Space laws are one of the most neglected fields in the legal world. Since the launch of revolutionary Sputnik 1, there had not been much progress. But in today’s world where concepts such as space warfare has evolved and where part of the security and economy of the countries relies upon space technology, there is an evident need of a comprehensive legal framework which can effectively govern space activities. There were incidents which voiced out the need for such laws in the past and recently another such incident took place over the Indian Ocean which sought to grasp the world’s attention towards this need.
The Long March is a term aligned with the ruling Chinese government’s glory since the days of civil war in the country. Later, the term was again used in the 1970s as China advanced through its journey of the technical railroad in space and introduced the world with the Long March family of its rocket launcher system. In 2015, the series of Long March family was introduced with its new generation Long March 5 rocket which can carry more than 25 tons of payload.
This generation of rockets is often in news due to their exceptional capacities of carrying payload into space. The seventh variant of this generation Long March 5-B is altogether in news for some different reasons as the lower part of the rocket launcher system fell into the Indian Ocean a few kilometres north of Male, capital of Maldives. It took the world into fear as the various space organizations and the Chinese authorities were anticipating the falling of the debris, i.e. the scattered pieces of rubbish or remains as it entered into the earth’s atmosphere, but, by surprise, nobody could predict the correct or appropriate location.
Space debris is a modern-day problem as it results in the contamination of outer space and poses the threat to the land and sea as sometimes it gets off from orbit and enters into the planet’s atmosphere. It also poses a threat to the existing space assets of the state as they are travelling into the free orbit and can cause them damage.
Some conventions deal with the liability of the state arising from the collision of such debris from land and sea. Under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects 1972, also known as Liability Convention, a state is liable for any harmful activity in space that causes damages to any other state as in the case of land the liability is absolute and for sea the liability depends upon the fault.
As for the Maldives, the small state went into the cover of fear as debris from outer space fell near the coastal lines of the state. The accident not only violated its territorial security and sovereignty but also threatened the lives of its very citizens. It also caused a legal injury to the state.
The Chinese media claimed no significant damage has occurred due to the accident and no major statement came out from the Maldivian government yet and it can be expected that no harsh statement criticizing Chinese recklessness will come out in the future.
The reason can be that the Maldivian government owes billions of dollars to China and had already leased one of its islands to China as a military base. Although most of the debris has been destroyed or burned due to atmospheric pressure, the remnants were capable of playing havoc as they passed through the atmosphere at a rapid pace.
Damages and Liability
After the incident took place the International community is condemning China’s negligence and lack of safety protocols to averse the threat of debris collision. For the Maldives, the Chinese incursion is too big a challenge to tackle alone and the world community should come to its aid.
We are living in an era where we have contaminated not only our land and water but are also contaminating outer space at a fastened speed. There is not much mechanism in place to fix the accountability of the state after such accidents. The Maldives should launch a global campaign to pursue the International community to establish a comprehensive legal framework that governs the space activities of the state.
It can move legally to the International Court of Justice or any relevant tribunals to claim for damages as the accident violated Article III of Liability Convention of 1972 which talks about which damages being caused by space object of one state to another upon the fault. Although, the term fault is not defined under this convention and fails to provide a full-proof method for computation of compensation.[i]
It can also move under UNCLOS Convention 1982 of which Article 235 calls for, “the states shall co-operate in the assessment of damages caused to the marine environment by the action of one to another and calls for prompt action through compensation relief mechanism”, as the falling of debris violated its sovereignty over its contagious zone. Both these conventions are signed and ratified by these countries.[ii]
Deficiencies in Current Conventions
This is not the first time an accident like this occurred. First time in 1978 it happened when Soviet Reconnaissance satellite Kosmos 954 made an uncontrolled re-entry into earth’s atmosphere and the debris carrying nuclear fuel fell onto the land of Canada which later claimed damages from the USSR. The basic difference between both incidents is that the place of happening as before it was on land and now it is in ocean violating coastline of Maldives.
There exist the Outer space treaty of 1967 and Liability convention of 1972 but both treaties are obsolete as they don’t cater to the needs of the present scenario. They are too narrow in verbatim and do not determine the quantum of damages in the change of scenarios. They also lack in fixing accountability for any space debris caused due to malfunctioning and obsoletion of space satellites and rocket systems.
Adding further, they lack a detailed framework in which environmental concerns such as contamination of outer space are addressed. The liability of private players is also needed to be affixed in this framework as recently the success of private players such as Space X in developing capable rocket launcher system also hinted that these players will play a vital role in developing space technology in the future.[iii]
Possible Reforms and Conclusion
The need for this framework arise the most when the powers such as the USA, Russia, China, and European Union are ignorant to assume responsibility towards smaller nations for their space programs. There is a need to establish a governing body for space activities just like International Atomic Energy Agency was established after the world community realized the danger posed by nuclear energy.
This body should be given greater authority. The major space powers should take an initiative to develop a security mechanism so that such accidents in the future could be avoided.
This can be done by developing a technology that can eliminate the threat of space debris falling back to earth. Big nations, should guide advancing nations who are ambitious to develop their space programs so that they can move in a way to develop safe and reliable technology to avert such future accidents.
India can also contribute as our space programs are considered to be the safest and efficient and have a reputation of its own. At the time when these treaties were introduced, it was believed that the chances of miss-happenings are remote and don’t pose a threat to humanity but now the scene has changed as major powers are competing for complete space domination by increasing their capabilities. For the present time, it is the need of the hour to introduce a legal framework that covers all the lacunae discussed above.
[i] The Convention on International Liability for Damage caused by Space Object, Art III 29 March ,1972
[ii] Convention on the Law of the Sea, Art 235 Dec. 10, 1982
[iii] Sandeepa B. Bhatt, Space Law in the era of Commercialisation, 1st ed.2010, pp.120-150.