Why international law matters in outer space – Part I

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Cross-posted from Intlawgrrls

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Image credit:

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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Drones and war by satellite in Hollywood: A Review of “Good Kill”

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While it does not take place in outer space, the 2015 film “Good Kill” is relevant for space law matters because of the satellite technology involved in drone warfare. And it also paints an interesting picture of the weird world in which a war can be fought in a foreign territory, in this case in Afghanistan and Yemen, from a remote control consol in the US.

The cast of
The cast of “Good Kill” at the drone operation consol

Set in 2010 and “based on real events”, as it states in the opening sequence, “Good Kill” sets out to demonstrate via popular media something that international lawyers have known for years: the US has committed war crimes during it’s infamous war on terror, and drone technology is in the crossfire of debates surrounding asymmetrical warfare.

The hero, Tom Egan, used to be a fighter pilot but technology has superceded him and he has been relegated to lead a team of drone operators, “flying” the unmanned vehicles which are in Afghanistan from their air conditioned containers in the desert surrounding Las Vegas. There is a painful and no doubt realistic juxtapositon between the high optic images which Egan and his team have from their drones of the targeted kills they make each day, and the return to their suburbian homes each day, to spouse, kids and weekend BBQs. There is no separation between war and the “homefront”, and this leads to increased mental instability in Egan as he questions the point of what he’s doing.

Enter the arc in the story, when the team are given orders by the CIA to begin “signature killings” – something which is known to have taken place, and possibly still does. Where targeted killings are questionable under international law, signature killings are almost certainly illegal: based on patterns of behaviour rather than clear identity, individuals and groups are targeted and killed by drones they cannot even see. One review of classified materials has revealed that the CIA could not confirm the identity of about a quarter of the people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan in 2010 to 2011. In “Good Kill” the orders given also take absolutely no regard of non-combattants in the vicinity, such that neighbours, farmers, mothers holding babies, and children are all calculated collateral damage, and often the deliberate victims of “follow-up” strikes.

One of the weaker points of the film is the simplicity of the script and the characters. On the one hand there are the two protagonists, Egan and new recruit Eva Suarez, both of whom are on the side of the conscious liberal, questioning the legality and morality of orders they are given. On the other hand are their teammates who are depicted as having “kill boner”, and believeing that everything they do is to protect their country against the elements of terrorism, no matter how far away from their homes the targets are. There are many speeches made just in case the audience has missed the very obvious point being made, right down to the quip that the war on terror is as endless and hopeless as the war on drugs.

But besides the simplicity, the film has some important stories to tell. Just as in “The Hurt Locker“, which was made by the same producers, the impossibility of combining a normal life with the realities of combat are brought to the forefront, though now the combatants return to home after a 12 hour shift of looking into a computer-game set-up of the war. And this remote reality also demonstrates that while drones may mean fewer American lives are being lost, the inhumanity of such machine warfare may be just as great, if not greater.

That this is not the future of war, but the “here and now” of war is pointed out by the Colonel in charge of the operations. Often when I talk about the role of space in warfare people imagine lasers and Star Wars like images, but the reality is much more stark. Using drones as remote weapons relies on satellite technology, for the communications and images being relayed back to the US, and even for the signal when the joystick is triggered by an operator, for the missiles or bombs to be released. As well, the position of a drone is determined by GPS, which is entirely satellite dependent. Such technology is so prevalent now, as the Colonel himself points out: drones are everywhere, and they are here to stay.drone

This prevalence, and the dependence on satellite communications, means that warfare in the hands of the most affluent States is already war through the use of space and”space assets”, even if it’s not war in space. Star Wars is here and now, it just looks different from the sci-fi film version we know. It looks like a video game console.

A Predator UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) remote pilot station: the accuracy of the depiction in
A Predator UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) remote pilot station: the accuracy of the depiction in “Good Kill” is noteworthy
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