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UNCOPUOS Legal Subcommittee 2018

Once again, I recently spent time as part of the SGAC delegation to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) Legal Subcommittee (LSC). This was my fourth LSC, my second as co-lead of the SGAC Space Law and Policy Project Group, and my fifth to UNCOPUOS (my first trip to the UN in Vienna was for the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee). The Legal Subcommittee session lasts for two weeks however I was able to attend only the first, and I will predominantly focus on the discussions relating to space resource activities or ‘space mining’[1].

UNCOPUOS is the UN body primarily responsible for space governance and has been active since 1959, the dawn of the space age. There are two subcommittees, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee which report to the full committee which itself reports to the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly. UNCOPUOS has been the source of all five space law treaties, as well as a host of resolutions. UNOOSA (United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs) serves as the Secretariat and has a plethora of information on its website[2].


The weather in Vienna was lovely

50th anniversary of the Rescue Agreement

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rescue Agreement. Therefore, it was unsurprising that the annual ECSL-IISL symposium, held on the first day of the Legal Subcommittee, focused on the Rescue and Return Agreement. I have discussed this previously[3] and so won’t rehash it here. However, it is worth saying that it is clear that the Rescue Agreement is an important part of the space law regime that needs to be given more attention especially given the changing nature of human activity in outer space.



@UNOOSA are having a 50 days to UNISPACE+50 countdown on Twitter

This year’s session of the Legal Subcommittee also involved considerable preparation for the upcoming UNISPACE+50[4] conference in June. This is a major UN conference which will mark the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE) in 1968. This will be the fourth such conference. The last one, UNISPACE III in 1999 led to the creation of the Space Generation Advisory Council[5], which is why SGAC is planning the Space Generation Forum 2.0 which will be a sort of anniversary event celebrating the achievements of SGAC over the past 19 years as well as looking forward to the future of space law and policy and SGAC’s role within that. SGAC is a fantastic organization and I am proud to be a member and honoured to have the opportunity to be part of the delegation to UNCOPUOS. I recommend that anyone who reads this blog check SGAC out (and the Space Law and Policy Project Group[6]) and if you are aged between 18 and 35 and a citizen of a Member State of the United Nations that you consider joining (it’s free to do so and well worth it.)


SGAC membership provides opportunities to take selfies with Moon rocks…

Space Mining

Space mining was on the agenda again this year under the title of ‘general exchange of views on potential legal models for activities in the exploration, exploitation and utilization of space resources’.[7] Unsurprisingly it proved a relatively popular and contentious topic and was accompanied by a lunchtime ‘seminar’ on the work of The Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group and their ‘Building Blocks’[8] for a framework on space resource governance. I will attempt to provide a broad overview of the debate, although it is interesting to note, as I did on Twitter, that no one seemingly opposes space mining per se, the point of discussion is how to authorise and regulate and who is responsible for doing so. There also seems to be a broad agreement on the desirability of some sort of international ‘coordination’ effort, although there is not an agreement over how necessary or immediate this is nor how ‘binding’ it would need to be. There was also fairly broad agreement about the desirability for continued discussion of this topic at UNCOPUOS. However, there was also a point of contention over the legitimacy of outside groups like, but not limited to, The Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group, especially with regards to ‘presenting’ their work before UNCOPUOS. Belgium presented a Working Paper[9] which sort of touched upon this although the main point was that UNCOPUOS shouldn’t rely on outside groups to do its for work for it. Beyond this much of the debate was little changed from previous years although it is good to see that more states are interested and better informed and at least in the process of formulating opinions and policies on space resources. This is important because the industry is forging ahead, and rules and norms will be developed, if states don’t take a stand soon they will find they have little influence in the process.

In this vein, it is perhaps worth noting that the Canadian delegation put forth the radical notion that given the title of the agenda item is about ‘potential legal models’ perhaps it would be a good idea for some states to actually present some potential legal models for UNCOPUOS to discuss… Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that there has been discussion about Article 11 of the Moon Agreement which calls upon states party to the Moon Agreement to develop a legal regime for ‘space mining’ when it becomes feasible. While the Moon Agreement is generally ignored given the low number of parties it could be a, shall we say, interesting, development if the parties decide that it is time to implement Article 11 of the Moon Agreement. I don’t think this would lead to mass adoption of the Moon Agreement but I do worry that it could lead to a fragmentation or divergence of the space law regime, as I discussed last year at Kings College London.[10] I also wouldn’t, as some do, take the view that companies would steer clear of a legal regime implemented under Article 11 of the Moon Agreement, such a regime could be seen as providing the certainty and legitimacy the space mining industry often says it needs and desires.[11]

Final Thoughts

Overall, I had an excellent week in Vienna, beyond anything else it is always nice to catch up with old space law friends, meet new ones and put faces to twitter handles. There’s more information on this year’s legal subcommittee on the UNOOSA website including audio recordings of the sessions in all six of the UN’s official languages.[12] There was obviously more discussed during the session that I have been able to mention here, and as mentioned I only attended the first week. I am hoping to attend UNISPACE+50 and will ‘report back’ if I do.


[1]Although there’s a whole discussion to be had about whether that’s the right term to use…

[6]I gave a technical presentation on the work of the project group which can be viewed here:

[10]Thomas Cheney, ‘Space mining and the potential crisis in space law’, International Graduate Legal Research Conference, Kings College London, 3 April 2017

[11]And it is worth considering that US Lockheed Martin opted to apply for a licence to mine the international seabed via a UK subsidiary under the UNCLOS regime…

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