Law manual seeks to reduce odds of space war

Contributors from China, Russia, U.S. and 14 other nations plan to release the manual by end of the year

Legal scholar Ram Jakhu sees a need for a clear, objective guide to military space laws that would help prevent space-faring nations from stumbling into a war in space.

An associate professor at McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law in Montreal, Jakhu and colleagues are compiling a law manual to clarify issues addressed separately — and at times differently — by a range of law bodies and international treaty provisions.

The publication will be called the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space, or the “McGill Manual” for short. The manual will be a practical resource for militaries around the world, and also a resource for identifying laws that are needed but don’t yet exist.

From McGill’s campus, Jakhu’s team has orchestrated the consensus-gathering project. Space law experts from 17 countries, including China and Russia, are drafting the manual, their activities coordinated — but not dictated — by Jakhu’s team at McGill. The manual will collect and clarify all laws and treaties directly or indirectly applicable to military uses of space during peacetime, the goal being to reduce the odds of hostilities breaking out over a misunderstanding.

China, India, Russia and the U.S. have each now demonstrated anti-satellite weapons by shooting down one of their own satellites, and so Jakhu wants countries to hit pause before something happens to trigger a conflict.

So many vital aspects of modern life rely on the security of satellites that with “all the militarization” happening, including the establishment of the U.S. Space Force, all parties need a grip on the ground rules upfront, he says.

The experts — 38 in all who will be listed as contributors — meet up for periodic workshops on their various continents to debate and finalize about 60 so-called “rules” that will make up the manual. The experts are from universities, institutes, companies, foundations and military branches; they are experts in space law, international law and military law advised by technical experts on spacecraft and the space environment.

Even those who work for a government are expected to be independent and make objective contributions. Of the seven experts taking part from China and Russia, six are from higher-education institutions and one is from a Russian company.

“Nobody is directing us. Nobody expects us to do something for them,” Jakhu says. All experts must reach a consensus on the text.

Law experts draft the parts of the manual related to their areas of expertise. They consider only primary sources, such as the text of official laws and provisions, official positions published by countries justifying their own laws, and decisions by organizations such as the International Court of Justice. Outside influences, such as academic arguments and political positions, don’t factor in.

The manual will lay out current laws in the form of several dozen “rules,” each a two- to four-line “general statement of law,” Jakhu says. Experts’ commentary accompanying each rule will provide context such as the legal basis of a given law or differences among laws on the same issue.

Rules that apply to military uses of space might not seem overtly military. For example, where does airspace stop and space begin? Other rules might be more clearly tied to military uses. Is it legal for countries to test anti-satellite weapons by destroying their own satellites, risking the spread of debris? In space, in particular, what constitutes an act of self-defense?

The contributors will meet next in April at the University of Mississippi to debate the few rules still to be finalized. Jakhu hopes the manual will be published before the end of 2020.

“If we’re stuck fighting a war in space, that’s going to be a very, very serious business for humanity,” Jakhu says.

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Law manual seeks to reduce odds of space war