Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space

The Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space were adopted by consensus on December 3, 1986. They provide a set of non-binding yet agreed and politically relevant principles (that such activities are to be conducted for the benefit of all countries, with respect for the sovereignty of all States and people over their own natural resources, and for the rights and interests of other States) to guide the activities of remote sensing by the United Nations member states.

Introduction

The United Nations (UN) Resolution Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space was adopted by consensus on December 3, 1986, which implies that no single state entertained fundamental objections to its content. Especially in the absence of other (binding) instruments regulating the same subject matter, United Nations Resolutions can carry great moral and political weight, as well as nascent legal validity (so-called “soft law” status). Therefore, and in view of their general nature, the legal status of the principles is similar to that of general principles of international law.

On the other hand. Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly as such are not binding upon states, even upon those having voted in favour or consented. General principles, moreover, do not readily allow for clear-cut application without further ado. In the final analysis, only those principles that reflect already existing customary legal rules — and to the extent that they do not conflict among themselves — might be effectively binding upon states.

Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space

Firstly, it may be noted that the UN Resolution applies to remote sensing activities “for the purpose of improving natural resources management, land use and the protection of the environment”. Another issue following from this, somewhat narrow, definition of remote sensing for the purposes of the Resolution, is that it might be taken to exclude from its scope any military activities. This, however, is of relatively little importance, since few of the other Principles contained in the Resolution could carry legal force as well as practical weight when it comes to military and security-related remote sensing activities.

Principle I of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space states that “The term “remote sensing” means the sensing of the Earth’s surface from space by making use of the properties of electromagnetic waves emitted, reflected or diffracted by the sensed objects, for the purpose of improving natural resources management, land use and the protection of the environment”. It also adds that “The term “remote sensing activities” means the operation of remote sensing space systems, primary data collection and storage stations, and activities in processing, interpreting and disseminating the processed data”.

Principle II of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space declares that “Remote sensing activities shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic, social or scientific and technological development, and taking into particular consideration the needs of the developing countries”. The very general reference to “the benefit and… interests of all countries” with special consideration for the developing countries is of considerable preponderance in international space law treaties and resolutions.

Principle III of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space enounces that “Remote sensing activities shall be conducted in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, and the relevant instruments of the International Telecommunication Union”.

Principle IV of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space states that “Remote sensing activities shall be conducted in accordance with the principles contained in article I of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which, in particular, provides that the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and stipulates the principle of freedom of exploration and use of outer space on the basis of equality. These activities shall be conducted on the basis of respect for the principle of full and permanent sovereignty of all States and peoples over their own wealth and natural resources, with due regard to the rights and interests, in accordance with international law, of other States and entities under their jurisdiction. Such activities shall not be conducted in a manner detrimental to the legitimate rights and interests of the sensed State”.

This Principle involves the core issue of satellite remote sensing: the dilemma between the freedom of use of outer space, in its particular manifestation of freedom of information gathering making use of satellites, and the principle of sovereignty of states over their own territory, more in particular over their own wealth and natural resources. These two concepts collide where the “sensed state” finds itself in a situation where a “sensing state” might obtain valuable information, especially in economic terms, with regard to the territory of the “sensed state” which that state itself does not possess.

A balance has been established by the Resolution that tilts in favour of the freedom of space activities. The principle of full and permanent sovereignty, it is true, is to be respected, consequently legitimate rights and interests of the “sensed state” shall not be harmed, and the benefit and interest of all countries shall be taken into account. All this, however, does not alter the fact that the “sensed state” has no veto to prevent it from being “sensed”, or even an exclusive, free, or preferential right of access to the data. This becomes especially clear when this Principle is seen in conjunction with Principles XII and XIII.

Principle V of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space affirms that “States carrying out remote sensing activities shall promote international cooperation in these activities. To this end, they shall make available to other States opportunities for participation therein. Such participation shall be based in each case on equitable and mutually acceptable terms”.

Principle VI of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space declares that “In order to maximize the availability of benefits from remote sensing activities, States are encouraged, through agreements or other arrangements, to provide for the establishment and operation of data collecting and storage stations and processing and interpretation facilities, in particular within the framework of regional agreements or arrangements wherever feasible”. Principle VII of the aforementioned Resolution mentions that “States participating in remote sensing activities shall make available technical assistance to other interested States on mutually agreed terms”.

Principle IX of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space states that “In accordance with article IV of the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space and article XI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, a State carrying out a programme of remote sensing shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations. It shall, moreover, make available any other relevant information to the greatest extent feasible and practicable to any other State, particularly any developing country that is affected by the programme, at its request”.

The substance of this Principle, though largely relating to a procedural issue, has a potentially important impact on user issues especially as regards the second provision. The terminology used with regard to informing other states (“relevant information”; “to the greatest extent feasible and practicable”) would still leave considerable leeway in applying it, for states that are forced or feel forced to adhere to this Principle.

Principle X of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space affirms that “Remote sensing shall promote the protection of the Earth’s natural environment. To this end, States participating in remote sensing activities that have identified information in their possession that is capable of averting any phenomenon harmful to the Earth’s natural environment shall disclose such information to States concerned”. Principle XI of the aforementioned Resolution adds that “Remote sensing shall promote the protection of mankind from natural disasters. To this end, States participating in remote sensing activities that have identified processed data and analysed information in their possession that may be useful to States affected by natural disasters, or likely to be affected by impending natural disasters, shall transmit such data and information to States concerned as promptly as possible”.

Principle XIV of the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space declares that “In compliance with article VI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, States operating remote sensing satellites shall bear international responsibility for their activities and assure that such activities are conducted in accordance with these principles and the norms of international law, irrespective of whether such activities are carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities or through international organizations to which such States are parties. This principle is without prejudice to the applicability of the norms of international law on State responsibility for remote sensing activities”.

This Principle, next to the cluster of Principles IV, XII, and XIII as dealing with the fundamental dilemma underlying satellite remote sensing, is the other core Principle of the Resolution, since it deals with the issue of State responsibility in the particular case of satellite remote sensing activities. As Principle XIV itself states, it also includes non-governmental entities within the scope of the Resolution and the concept of international responsibility. The legitimacy of private involvement in any aspect of space remote sensing activities is thereby confirmed. That is what can be said concerning the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space.