I. Outer space and dispute settlement: a glimpse of the last five decades.
Space: the last frontier. Since the launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1, which started the “Space Age” back in 1957, Humanity has been actively present in outer space. At that time, space activities were conducted by a handful of countries, and in practice only by the former USSR and the US, the two belligerent superpowers of the Cold War era. The first discussions on space activities within the United Nations (UN) showed the international community’s main concern to anticipate and therefore prevent a scenario of militarization of outer space, as well as to promote exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes only: this is the origin of Space Law. As early as 1961, the UN General Assembly adopted the Resolution 1721 (XVI), 20 December 1961, laying down the first core legal principles applicable to outer space. Such principles were then crystallized in 1967 with the approval and entry into force of the “Outer Space Treaty” (OST), which was followed by four other treaties, among them the 1972 “Liability Convention” (LIAB).
As these treaties were drafted at a time when only a few States possessed space industry and capability, one can understand why the OST established a State liability regime, i.e., in addition to their own activities, States are also responsible and liable for their private entities. The LIAB would further develop the provisions laid down in the OST, defining damage from a collision perspective, whether it is a bodily damage (loss of life and injury) or a material damage. In addition, the LIAB adopted the “Launching State” criterion, the basis of its dual system of liability: (i) objective/absolute liability, for damages caused by space objects on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight; and (ii) subjective/fault liability, i.e., damages being caused elsewhere than on the surface of the Earth to a space object of one launching State or to persons or property on board such a space object by a space object of another launching State. To this end, LIAB holds States liable for damage caused by their space objects and comprises a dispute resolution procedure consisting of diplomatic negotiations followed by the establishment of a Claims Commission. However, this mechanism is only available to States and not to private parties – or rather, any private entity would need to resort to its respective State, which will then diplomatically approach the other State(s) in question, and the latter may not even have anything to do directly with the dispute, in case it concerns another private entity registered in that country – and the award given by the Claims Commission is of a merely recommendatory nature, unless States involved agree otherwise. The LIAB was invoked only one time: in 1978, the Soviet satellite “Cosmos 954” crashed on Canadian territory, and Canada issued a claim against the USSR, but the dispute was eventually resolved through diplomatic channels, with the specific amount paid to Canada being unknown to this day.
Even though the LIAB still remains very relevant today, its legal framework presents many difficulties and has very limited practical use for commercial space entities. In fact, given the accelerated increase of private actors in space, the UN recommends and encourages States to develop their own national space laws, outlining, e.g., the scope of application of activities to be addressed, conditions for authorization and licensing or insurance requirements. Besides, considering the world and present-day challenges, it is not the appropriate legal instrument to address and settle other types of disputes, such as investor-state disputes or any others regarding complex, multi-party, international contracts.
II. Outer space in the 21st century: many actors, activities, and disputes. A role for arbitration?
Over the course of the last three decades, space has evolved from a status of a vast majority of state-owned space objects and activities to a much broader presence of non-state actors, notably, private commercial space entities, developing a wide range of space applications (e.g., telecommunications, satellite navigation, etc.), thus entering the space industry, in contrast with a previous (almost) exclusive public environment – representing the so-called “New Space”. But along with new actors and opportunities, new obstacles also arise, including legal ones. As outer space is open to more and more private entities, the number of space objects also increases, thus, the congestion of Earth’s orbits (specially, the lower earth orbit) adds substantial risks to space operations which are exposed to a greater danger for collisions, one of the reasons for the growing need for space traffic management tools. Moreover, such growth of space activities has led to an increasing amount of space debris that will most likely cause more accidents. In this context, as space gets more “crowded”, the risk of damages to space objects consequently increases, including those of non-governmental actors.
It goes without saying that if the number of actors in space is gradually rising, it will soon result in more disputes. But disputes are not only those based on collisions, as they may encompass any contractual disputes that may arise, e.g., satellite-related disputes; disputes regarding any components of the space industry, from manufacturing, to launching, and operating; seizure of assets related to space-related contracts; disputes relating to the launch of space objects into space orbits; as well as disputes in regulatory, insurance or even intellectual property rights domains. Consequently, space disputes are (and will be) numerous, diverse, and complex, which may include States, private actors, or both. In the latter cases, international space law does not have a specific dispute resolution mechanism available for private parties.
As highlighted, although such private entities can indeed request the State to trigger the application of the LIAB, the Convention operates via diplomatic channels that certainly presents an uncertain outcome based on a burdensome procedure that is ultimately non-binding and unsuitable for many disputes. This being said, non-state actors lack legal resources provided to States by international law, and domestic litigation addressing cross-border space disputes is also likely to be insufficient in many levels because obstacles such as lengthy decisions on the jurisdiction of national courts or the applicable law, loss of confidentiality, uncertainty about the recognition and enforcement of judgments in other jurisdictions, as well as possible scenarios on sovereignty immunity if the claim is filled against a State. As many legal scholars point out, space, space activities, and the diversity of space actors mean that space law should not rely solely on a unique dispute resolution mechanism, instead, it should be open to a diversity of legal instruments to address cross-border and highly complex disputes.
In this context, in recent years we have witnessed the emergence of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in space, with a clear preference for arbitration: in 2011, the Permanent Court of Arbitration adopted its “Permanent Court of Arbitration Optional Rules for Arbitration of Disputes Relating to Outer Space Activities,”; last year, Dubai has established its own specialized “Space Court.” On a broader international scale, it appears as though the role of arbitration for space disputes is not an “alternative” but is by far the default option for resolving disputes. This is not surprising considering that international contracts usually have an arbitration clause, and arbitration truly is the most popular solution chosen by the parties in light of the technical complexity associated with space issues. For example, it is well-known that the European Space Agency has been preferring arbitration in its model contracts for some time. Arbitration is anchored on several principles, including, e.g., that of consent of the parties and the principle of autonomy.
If parties do consent and submit their dispute to arbitration – without prejudice of space accidents between parties not bound by any contractual relationship, and thus lacking an opportunity to agree to submit a possible dispute to arbitration – parties may appoint their respective arbitrators, surely to be chosen based on their expertise and know-how required to handle space matters and understand the characteristics of a specific case. Besides, flexibility and suitability are features in arbitration proceedings, both international and domestic, that escape from the rigidity of the so called “one-size-fits-all” of national courts, and which renders them inappropriate to resolve outer space disputes.
On a final note, it is also known the possibility of investor-state dispute settlement regarding space activities, whose bilateral and multilateral investment treaties around the world contain arbitration clauses that could allow, as the case may be, a private entity (investor) to choose the applicable rules, for example, ICSID Arbitration Rules or the ICC Rules of Arbitration – this is a very interesting but complex topic, worthy of considerations in a future article.
The current international framework addressing dispute settlement in outer space, foreseen both the LIAB and the OST, although of greater importance, does not provide favourable mechanisms to facilitate outer space disputes to private entities, particularly because space technologies, applications and activities have grown at a much faster pace than the legal system drafted back in the 1960s and 1970s. ADR proceedings, notably arbitration, both international and domestic, are useful and capable of resolving disputes on a wide variety of space-related issues, and may indeed help space stakeholders, public and private, to overcome legal pitfalls.
Victoria Associates has a unique track record in all sorts of international proceedings with a keen interest and focus on international arbitration, including international commercial and investment disputes, but also advising and representing clients in ADR proceedings in domestic arbitration and litigation before national courts in jurisdictions where we are qualified.
Above all, Victoria Associates’ members understand their clients’ business and motivation, helping them “reaching for the stars”.
João Nuno Frazão