THE GROWING field of space law, which represents a multi-billion dollar industry, is the focus of an upcoming seminar to be hosted by the Lawyers Reform Association (LRA) in Sydney next week.
Australian lawyers must be mindful of the increased use of space for military, telecommunications, research and government applications of late, said vice president of the LRA and chair of the seminar, Michael Antrum.
“This is going to be a huge area for lawyers in the not too distant future. It used to be something that was pretty geeky, that you could have fun with. But now it is a serious area of law that more lawyers should be turning their attention to,” Antrum said.
Steven Freeland, associate professor of international law at the University of Western Sydney, believes the fact that space impacts so expansively on our lives is reason enough for lawyers to be taking an interest in space law.
“When you think what you do in a day … you wouldn’t be able to do a lot of those things without the use of space technology, and because there’s so much money involved … there have to be lawyers involved [as well],” Freeland said.
Due to speak at the LRA seminar, Freeland considers commercial, scientific and military advances in space will leave reform to international space law lagging.
“Like other areas where the technology is progressing at a rapid rate, the law struggles to keep up with the broad range of activities now being undertaken in space, let alone other activities that will be developed in the future,” he said.
Fundamental international law principles — such as an obligation to engage in peaceful activities, care for the environment, and a restriction on individual countries appropriating space — have become outdated, according to Freeland. “To be honest, those principals don’t cover, in any detailed way, lots of things that are going on in space.”
What currently exists is an undeveloped system of law that allows the major space nations of the world to do as they please. “In a sense, it’s in the interest of the space-faring nations not to have law, so they can essentially do things in an unrestricted way,” Freeland said.
Where this is most evident is in the area of military technology. Freeland said the antiquated international moratorium on the use of space for military gain has now been abandoned in favour of one of ‘weaponisation’.
“Space is, unfortunately, being used as an important part of the military strategic forces of major powers,” he said, explaining that space technology applies to everything from GPS tracking, to ‘smart bombs’ to spying capabilities. Even the much maligned ‘Star Wars’ US Strategic Defense Initiative is still a real possibility. “The US has made it quite clear that that certainly isn’t off the drawing board,” Antrum said.
“The question is, one: whether it is effective, and two: from my perspective, whether it’s legal,” Freeland said.
Every year the UN Security Council and the General Assembly pass resolutions calling for states to ensure there is no arms race in space, Freeland said, “but behind the scenes, there’s no doubt that space is now an incredibly important strategic frontier for military activities”.
Donna Lawler, corporate counsel for Optus Satellite, will discuss the many commercial considerations affecting companies that are engaged in space-related activities, which Antrum expects should be a chief concern for the legal community. But according to Freeland, Australian lawyers will need to broaden their focus to international matters of a greater complexity.
“As this becomes increasingly cooperative from an international view point … on a country to country level, and corporate to corporate, lawyers will need to understand a much broader range of issues than just, [say], Australian broadcasting law,” Freeland said.
One such issue involves the ferocity with which major powers protect their technology. “The United States and Russia are extremely nervous about any of their technology falling into the hands of other countries,” Freeland said, citing Russia’s deal to develop a launch facility on Christmas Island under a joint venture with Australia, which forbids any Australian from having access to the technology involved.
Space tourism will be another industry that will require legal regulation. “Really the law is nowhere near ready to deal with it,” Antrum said. With Sir Richard Branson developing a fleet of “spaceliners” and civilians having paid for flights on former soviet aircraft since 2001, it seems the arrival of a fully-fledged space tourism industry is only a matter of time.