The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the main principles of Space Law

For this new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, let’s have a look at the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. What are the main principles of space law? How do the international texts organise the Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies?

Foreword

The UNITED NATIONS TREATIES AND PRINCIPLES ON OUTER SPACE are “Text of treaties and principles governing the activities of States in the exploration and use of outer space, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly”. The United Nations has the responsibility, in the legal field, to develop and codify international law. Because outer space was an environment of a new nature, “extraordinary in many respects” and “unique from the legal point of view”, and because its human conquest started in the tense climate of the 1950s, the international community had to rapidly legislate about it.

Recently, human activities and international interaction in outer space have become realities. Through the efforts of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and its Legal Subcommittee, a number of significant contributions to the law of outer space have been made in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; formulation of international rules to facilitate international relations in outer space. The United Nations has therefore become “the place” or “a focal point” for international cooperation in outer space and for the formulation of necessary international rules. The extension of international law to outer space has been gradual and evolutionary; commencing with the study of questions relating to legal aspects, proceeding to the formulation of principles of a legal nature and, then, incorporating such principles in general multilateral treaties.

A significant first step was the adoption by the General Assembly in 1963 of the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space”. This text is the genesis of what has become known as “Space Law”. The years that followed saw the development within the United Nations of five general multilateral treaties, which incorporated and developed concepts included in the Declaration of Legal Principles:

  1. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (General Assembly resolution 2222 – XXI) entered into force on October 10, 1967;
  2. Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (General Assembly resolution 2345 – XXII) entered into force on December 3, 1968;
  3. Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (General Assembly resolution 2777 – XXVI) entered into force on September 1, 1972;
  4. Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (General Assembly resolution 3235 – XXIX) entered into force on September 15, 1976;
  5. Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (General Assembly resolution 34/68) entered into force on July 11, 1984.

The United Nations oversaw the drafting, formulation and adoption of five General Assembly resolutions, including the Declaration of Legal Principles. These are:

  1. Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, adopted on December 13, 1963 (General Assembly resolution 1962 – XVIII);
  2. Principles Governing the Use by States of Artificial Earth Satellites for International Direct Television Broadcasting, adopted on December 10, 1982 (General Assembly resolution 37/92);
  3. Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space, adopted on December 3, 1986 (General Assembly resolution 41/65);
  4. Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space, adopted on December 14, 1992 (General Assembly resolution 47/68);
  5. Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for the Benefit and in the Interest of All States, Taking into Particular Account the Needs of Developing Countries, adopted on December 13, 1996 (General Assembly resolution 51/122).

The United Nations states, in the collection of Space Law texts (available freely on the U.N.’s website), that “The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, could be viewed as furnishing a general legal basis for the peaceful uses of outer space and providing a framework for the developing law of outer space. The four other treaties may be said to deal specifically with certain concepts included in the 1967 Treaty. The space treaties have been ratified by many Governments and many others abide by their principles. In view of the importance of international cooperation in developing the norms of space law and their important role in promoting international cooperation in the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General of the United Nations have called upon all Member States of the United Nations not yet parties to the international treaties governing the uses of outer space to ratify or accede to those treaties as soon as feasible”. Let’s now look at the Magna Carta of space law and the main principles it enacted in 1967.

General introduction

On December 19, 1966, the United Nations unanimously adopted a treaty, opened for signature on January 27, 1967, declaring that the exploration and use of outer space must be carried out in the interest and for the good of humanity, any discrimination between States being excluded. Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, will be free and accessible to all States and cannot be the subject of national ownership. Adopting these basic principles, it establishes that any action by States in outer space must be in accordance with international law (including the Charter of the United Nations of 1945, the foundational treaty of the United Nations) not only in the interest of maintaining international peace and security, but also to foster international cooperation and understanding.

Among the broad general principles that should govern the space activities of States, the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, mentioned in the Preamble to the Outer Space Treaty and in several of its provisions, has been in fact, several times since 1957, stated in previous General Assembly resolutions of the United Nations (in 1957, 1958, 1959, and more particularly in 1961). Already, the signing of the Moscow Treaty in 1963, prohibiting nuclear experiments in the air, water and space, represented an important relaxation with regard to the political relations between the U.S.S.R. and the United States of America. The desire for co-operation has also been reflected in other events such as the agreement of 1962, reiterated in 1963 between the U.S.S.R. and the United States of America for the peaceful co-operation in the fields of meteorological satellites, telecommunications and the establishment of magnetic field maps. As a result, two important resolutions were adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1962 and 1963.

The result of this spirit of cooperation was also reflected in the same year by the adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations of an important resolution on the question of disarmament general and complete (1963). In this resolution, the General Assembly refers to a previous resolution of 1961 and emphasizes its decision to take measures to prevent the arms race from spreading to outer space. It is the famous resolution “no bombs in orbit”.

In 1965, the United States of America delegation to the United Nations declared that “before the human beings Moon landed, the U.N. should set forth international rules governing the exploration of celestial bodies”. Before the opening of negotiations on the Outer Space Treaty, the United States of America was already thinking more about a treaty on celestial bodies, than a specific convention on outer space. It is in this sense that on May 7, 1966, President Johnson emphasized the need for immediate action “to ensure that the exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies serves only peaceful purposes” and “to be sure that our astronauts and those of other countries will be able freely to proceed to the scientific study of the Moon”. The President of the United States of America suggested that the United Nations adopt a treaty governing the exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies and, among the principles retained for inclusion in this treaty, it was intended that “no country should be allowed to place weapons of mass destruction on a celestial body” and that “weapons tests and military manoeuvres should be prohibited”.

Animated by the same concern, to “take practical steps towards the conquest of the Moon and other celestial bodies and, first and foremost, adopt provisions to prohibit the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies for military activities”, the U.S.S.R. also tabled a draft treaty on “the legal principles to govern the activity of states in the field of exploration and conquest of the moon and other celestial bodies”, which, with respect to military uses, contained the following provisions: “All states must use the Moon and other celestial bodies exclusively for peaceful purposes. The Moon and other celestial bodies shall not be constructed with military bases or installations, including facilities containing nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction”. Thus, from 1965 to 1966, the two Great Spatial Powers agreed on a number of principles to govern the activities of States, mainly on the Moon and other celestial bodies.

The Outer Space Treaty (1967), concluded within an extremely short period of time (six months), was in fact a bilateral agreement between the two Great Spatial Forces and then imposed on the other States that were not materially prepared and at the time, did not master the technical data. This is an important historical fact that should be kept in mind.

In its Preamble, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 reaffirms “the great prospects opening up before mankind as a result of man’s entry into outer space”, “recognizing the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes”, “believing that the exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development”, “desiring to contribute to broad international cooperation in the scientific as well as the legal aspects of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes”, and “believing that such cooperation will contribute to the development of mutual understanding and to the strengthening of friendly relations between States and peoples”.

Then, some precedent legal dispositions are going to be recalled: recalling resolution 1962 (XVIII), entitled “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space”, which was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on December 13, 1963 / recalling resolution 1884 (XVIII), calling upon States to refrain from placing in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or from installing such weapons on celestial bodies, which was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on October 17, 1963 / taking account of United Nations General Assembly resolution 110 (II) of 3 November 1947, which condemned propaganda designed or likely to provoke or encourage any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, and considering that the aforementioned resolution is applicable to outer space.

Finally, the Preamble adds that the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies should “further the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. Follow the different articles of the Outer Space Treaty (1967).

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the main principles of Space Law

I. The Exploration and Use of Outer Space for the interest of all countries

Article I of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that “The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind”. It then states that “There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international cooperation in such investigation”.

Article X of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 adds that “In order to promote international cooperation in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, in conformity with the purposes of this Treaty, the States Parties to the Treaty shall consider on a basis of equality any requests by other States Parties to the Treaty to be afforded an opportunity to observe the flight of space objects launched by those States. The nature of such an opportunity for observation and the conditions under which it could be afforded shall be determined by agreement between the States concerned”.

Article XI of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 adds that “In order to promote international cooperation in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, States Parties to the Treaty conducting activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, agree to inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations as well as the public and the international scientific community, to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, of the nature, conduct, locations and results of such activities. On receiving the said information, the Secretary-General of the United Nations should be prepared to disseminate it immediately and effectively”.

Article XII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 adds that “All stations, installations, equipment and space vehicles on the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be open to representatives of other States Parties to the Treaty on a basis of reciprocity. Such representatives shall give reasonable advance notice of a projected visit, in order that appropriate consultations may be held and that maximum precautions may be taken to assure safety and to avoid interference with normal operations in the facility to be visited”.

Article XIII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 adds that “The provisions of this Treaty shall apply to the activities of States Parties to the Treaty in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by a single State Party to the Treaty or jointly with other States, including cases where they are carried on within the framework of international intergovernmental organizations. Any practical questions arising in connection with activities carried on by international intergovernmental organizations in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be resolved by the States Parties to the Treaty either with the appropriate international organization or with one or more States members of that international organization, which are Parties to this Treaty”.

II. The freedom of Exploration and Use of Outer Space

Article I of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 affirms 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, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies”.

III. Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation

Article II of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 declares that “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”.

IV. The peaceful use of Outer Space

Article III of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 enounces that “States Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international cooperation and understanding”.

Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 adds that “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner. The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden. The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited. The use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies shall also not be prohibited”.

V. The status of astronauts

Article V of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 enunciates that “States Parties to the Treaty shall regard astronauts as envoys of mankind in outer space and shall render to them all possible assistance in the event of accident, distress, or emergency landing on the territory of another State Party or on the high seas. When astronauts make such a landing, they shall be safely and promptly returned to the State of registry of their space vehicle. In carrying on activities in outer space and on celestial bodies, the astronauts of one State Party shall render all possible assistance to the astronauts of other States Parties. States Parties to the Treaty shall immediately inform the other States Parties to the Treaty or the Secretary-General of the United Nations of any phenomena they discover in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, which could constitute a danger to the life or health of astronauts”.

VI. The international responsibility

Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 sets forth that “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization”.

VII. Liability of the Launching State

Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 adds that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

VIII. Jurisdiction and control over Space Objects

Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that “A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

IX. The environmental aspects of Space Law

Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 declares that “In the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, States Parties to the Treaty shall be guided by the principle of cooperation and mutual assistance and shall conduct all their activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty. States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose. If a State Party to the Treaty has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by it or its nationals in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other States Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, it shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment. A State Party to the Treaty which has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by another State Party in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, may request consultation concerning the activity or experiment”.

X. Regulatory aspects of the Outer Space Treaty

Article XIV of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that “1. This Treaty shall be open to all States for signature. Any State which does not sign this Treaty before its entry into force in accordance with paragraph 3 of this article may accede to it at any time. 2. This Treaty shall be subject to ratification by signatory States. Instruments of ratification and instruments of accession shall be deposited with the Governments of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America, which are hereby designated the Depositary Governments. 3. This Treaty shall enter into force upon the deposit of instruments of ratification by five Governments including the Governments designated as Depositary Governments under this Treaty. 4. For States whose instruments of ratification or accession are deposited subsequent to the entry into force of this Treaty, it shall enter into force on the date of the deposit of their instruments of ratification or accession. 5. The Depositary Governments shall promptly inform all signatory and acceding States of the date of each signature, the date of deposit of each instrument of ratification of and accession to this Treaty, the date of its entry into force and other notices. 6. This Treaty shall be registered by the Depositary Governments pursuant to Article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations”.

Article XV of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 adds that “Any State Party to the Treaty may propose amendments to this Treaty. Amendments shall enter into force for each State Party to the Treaty accepting the amendments upon their acceptance by a majority of the States Parties to the Treaty and thereafter for each remaining State Party to the Treaty on the date of acceptance by it”.

Article XVI of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 adds that “Any State Party to the Treaty may give notice of its withdrawal from the Treaty one year after its entry into force by written notification to the Depositary Governments. Such withdrawal shall take effect one year from the date of receipt of this notification”.

Finally, Article XVII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 concludes with the following: “This Treaty, of which the Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish texts are equally authentic, shall be deposited in the archives of the Depositary Governments. Duly certified copies of this Treaty shall be transmitted by the Depositary Governments to the Governments of the signatory and acceding States. IN WITNESS WHEREOF the undersigned, duly authorized, have signed this Treaty. DONE in triplicate, at the cities of London, Moscow and Washington, D.C., the twenty-seventh day of January, one thousand nine hundred and sixty-seven”.

As a conclusion, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, an international treaty binding the parties to use outer space only for peaceful purposes, is draft treaties on the uses of outer space reconciled during several months of negotiation in the Legal Subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Under the terms of the treaty, the parties are prohibited from placing nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit, on the Moon, or on other bodies in space. Nations cannot claim sovereignty over the Moon or other celestial bodies. Nations are responsible for their activities in space, are liable for any damage caused by objects launched into space from their territory, and are bound to assist astronauts in distress. Their space installations and vehicles shall be open, on a reciprocal basis, to representatives of other countries, and all parties agree to conduct outer-space activities openly and in accordance with international law.