Images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have renewed worldwide interest in space exploration. In addition to the infinite possibilities that exist in outer space, there are several possibilities that hit closer to home. In the words of the U.S. government, “conflict or confrontation in outer space is not inevitable…” Ideally, only peaceful, safe, sustainable, lawful, and legitimate uses of space are undertaken. The benefits of space exploration and space utilization are undeniable, and military presence in space must be prevented so that these benefits are not endangered.

Benefits of Space Technology and Utilization

Since the beginning of the Space Age, we have utilized space science and technology for sustainable economic and social development. Technology developed for space has an impact on many aspects of development including agriculture, communication, and the environment.

When it comes to agriculture, space-based technology is of great importance to farmers and agricultural policymakers who seek to enhance food production and profitability. This technology has accumulated key data for monitoring soil, snow cover, drought, and rainfall. This information can also help predict a region’s agricultural output and can help mitigate the effects of food shortages and famines. 

Perhaps most useful are the communication benefits of space. Daily life involves sharing information electronically, whether it be through mobile phones or computers. Communication satellites have enabled global telecommunications systems by relaying data globally and instantaneously. Space-based technology often reduces infrastructure requirements of Earth-based alternatives, and offers a more cost effective method. 

Space-based technologies have also enhanced our understanding of the environment. They have contributed to the scientific understanding of water cycles, air quality, forests, and other natural aspects. For instance, this information provides tools to monitor ecosystems and offers objective support for conservation efforts and sustainable resource management.

These benefits to agriculture, communication, and the environment are just a few examples of the vast number of benefits that space exploration has facilitated. But these benefits could be put at risk should international conflict reach outer space.

The McGill Manual and a Summary of Its Rules

Out of concern for ensuring that the uses of space are undertaken for the benefit of humanity, McGill University, and collaborating institutions, drafted the McGill Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space, published in August 2022. In its prologue, the McGill Manual reiterates that conflict in outer space is not inevitable. However, it continues: “Yet, as the human costs and devastating consequences of the possible extension of an armed conflict to outer space cannot be discounted, there is an imperative for all of us…to do everything possible to ensure that outer space remains free from conflict….” This Manual contains 52 rules that clarify the international law applicable to all space activities during times of peace and times of conflict. These rules reveal the following information:

Chapter I (Rules 101-108) contains definitions for terms like “space activities” and “space objects.” 

Chapter II (Rules 109-112) discusses the applicability of international law and national law. In particular, Rule 109 states that all space activities, including military space activities, shall be “carried on in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations.” Rule 110 asserts that a “State may not rely on its national law as justification for failure to comply with its international obligations related to its space activities.” 

Chapter III (Rules 113-117) involves sovereignty and jurisdiction rules. 

Chapter IV (Rules 118-129) provides the rights and obligations of state and non-state actors. Of note, Rule 118 states that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind.” Rule 119 clarifies that the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, and that military activities thereon are forbidden. This Chapter also discusses the registration of space objects, the treatment of astronauts, and the ability of States to utilize natural resources of outer space for peaceful purposes.

Chapter V (Rules 130-138) explains the responsibility and liability for national space activities, damage caused by space objects, States’ responsibilities for internationally wrongful acts, and rules of reparation and compensation. 

Chapter VI (Rules 139-144) examines interference with space activities and pays special attention to the use of radio frequencies and communications.

Chapter VII (Rules 145-149) imparts rules that regulate weapons, military infrastructure, and military maneuvers. Rule 145 prohibits the placement in orbit around the Earth of any object carrying weapons of mass destruction as well as the testing of any chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon in outer space. Rule 147 prohibits States from establishing military bases on the Moon or other celestial bodies.

Chapter VIII (Rule 150) contains a single rule for the peaceful settlement of disputes arising from space activities. 

Chapter IX (Rules 151-152) prohibits the threat or use of force by a State against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, but retains an inherent right of individual or collective self-defense.

The Law

The McGill Manual is not the only document seeking to define law in outer space. There are many other important treaties and legal instruments including the Charter of the United Nations, United Nations Treaties on Outer Space, United Nations Resolutions and Guidelines Related to Outer Space, International Treaties Governing Telecommunications, and Other International Treaties. The McGill Manual partnered and collaborated with institutions in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, the United States, and others.

Outer space is not lawless; there is in fact a clear body of fundamental legal principles that have been applied to space activities for decades. Since 1957, there has been a clear consensus that outer space must be explored and used in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Charter. A series of treaties, created under the auspices of the United Nations, have elaborated these foundational principles on space law to which nearly all space-faring countries subscribe. While there is a significant body of international rules and principles applying to space activities, and particularly military space activities, differing interpretations and uncertainty are the breeding ground of conflict. This is why international restatements like the McGill Manual are important: they attempt to clarify and reaffirm existing laws. Clarification that helps crystalize customary international law norms is essential as space exploration develops faster than the pace at which the law is written.


Author Biography: Amanda Bini is a Senior Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School (GW). She has Bachelor of Science Degrees in Criminal Justice and Business Administration from Northeastern University. She is also a member of GW’s Federal Circuit Bar Journal.