International Space Laws and Crimes in Space

space crime

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This article is written by Aryan Kashyap, from Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida. This is an exhaustive article on International Space Laws, covering the legislation and jurisdiction of such laws. At the same time examining the crimes in space and its constituents.


We can describe space laws as the statutory body of law having jurisdiction over all space-related activities. All the States fall under the purview of Space Laws. In this regard, they are very similar to International Laws. It is comprised of these:

Who legislates Space Laws?

The term “Space Laws” primarily refers to all the rules, regulations, principles and standards of procedures. The principle International Organisation which works on outer space-related affairs is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). The main functions of the UNOOSA are:

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA)

Initially, the UNOOSA was formed as a small expert unit under the United Nations Secretariat as an ad hoc committee, promoting the peaceful uses of outer space. It was established in 1958, in the General Assembly resolution 1348 (XII).

Soon after its formation, the UNOOSA unit was moved to the Department of Political and Security Council Affairs and later it was metamorphosed into the Outer Space Affairs division of the Department in 1968.

UNISPACE Conferences

Sputnik 1 marked the advent of the space age back in 1957. Since then the United Nations has been stressing on the importance of peaceful international coordination in outer space. The outer space is believed to be the wild west, but many don’t know it has the potential to support immense socio-economic development for the future. 

No single country had the technology advanced enough to go out there and reap those benefits. Thus, as the famous saying goes, “Unity is strength”, the need for global cooperation on this was recognised.

Overseeing this immensely beneficial scope of development, the UN organised a series of global conferences for the exploration and peaceful uses of outer space and its resources. These series of conferences were known as UNISPACE conferences. There have been three UNISPACE conferences, all of them were held in Vienna.

The key agendas discussed in each of the conferences:


The data and information as per the information provided by the Official UNISPACE I Report:

Timeline: held from 14th August to 27th August 1968.

Attendees: 78 member states, 9 specialized UN agencies, 4 other International organisations.

Key takeaways:  This was the first of the series of the conferences: 

  1. Raising awareness of the vast potential of space. 
  2. Discover possible space benefits for the entirety of humankind. 
  3. Review the advancement of space science and technology. 
  4. Promote international cooperation. 
  5. Work for development, keeping in mind the benefit of the third world countries. 
  6. Recommended the formation of an Expert Space Applications Unit. (This later turned out to be UNOOSA)


The data and information as per the information provided by the Official UNISPACE II Report

Timeline: held from 9th August to 21st August 1982.

Attendees: 94 member states, 45 Intergovernmental and Non-governmental organisations. 

Key takeaways: this was the second of the series of conferences. This question raised many important contemporary questions: 

  1. Asked about the procedure of maintaining the usage of outer space for peaceful purposes.
  2. Questions about preventing an arms race in outer space.
  3. What shall be the essential requirements of maintaining a peaceful exploration of outer space?
  4. Enable means for the developing countries to benefit from the peaceful and healthy uses of technology.
  5. UNISPACE II strengthened the UNOOSA programme.
  6. Marked the establishment of UN-affiliated regional space science centres for the development of science and technology.  


The data and information as per the information provided by the Official UNISPACE III Report

Timeline: held from 19th July to 30th July 1999. 

Attendees: 97 member states, 9 UN specialised agencies, 15 International Intergovernmental Organisations. 

Key takeaways: this was the third of the series of conferences. This conference laid the foundation of peaceful uses of outer space in the 21st century: 

  1. The need to protect the environment on a global level. 
  2. Efficient management of natural resources. 
  3. Protecting the space environment.
  4. Increase the outflow of space science and benefits to the developing nations.
  5. This conference ended with the Vienna Declaration on Space and Human Development infamous as The Vienna Declaration.
  6. The Vienna Declaration recommended 33 strategies addressing contemporary challenges in space activities.

Jurisdiction of Space Laws

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967

The Outer Space Treaty is also known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies. At the time it was signed up by three countries:

This treaty further brought the reassurance that outer space was to be used only for peaceful purposes and it shall be for the betterment of mankind. It further laid out the direction to proceed:

Requested the committee to adhere by certain measures for peaceful uses of outer space:

By the virtue of this treaty, the states came to an agreement on these points:

Article I

Article II

No action taken by any State can permit them to make claims of sovereignty over outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies.

Article III

The states undertaking outer space exploration activities must act in accordance with the international laws as well as the UN charter. They shall also maintain international peace and cooperation in doing so.

Article IV

Article V

Article VI

Article VII

Article VIII

Article IX

Article X

Article XI

Article XII

Article XIII

Article XIV

Article XV

Article XVI

Article XVII

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Treaties and Conventions governing Space Laws

As Andrew G. Hailey rightly said, legislating space laws might be one of the toughest feats for the law. The cosmos is vast. It is difficult to adjudicate it. Principally there are five international treaties which deal with certain rudimentary issues related to space. These issues are:

Primarily, there are five treaties dealing under the UN’s umbrella governing outer space. These are also known as “five United Nations treaties on outer space”. They are:

Outer Space Treaty

As described earlier, it is one of the main laws which govern all the member states, who have entered into the treaty. This also promotes the peaceful use and exploration of space-related activities. It was signed back in 1967 and continues to date.

Rescue Agreement

The rescue agreement was given the green light by the General Assembly in 1967. This agreement supporters every means possible to help and rescue the astronauts in situations of distress.

The member states, upon request from the party in distress, must promptly assist the states to return registered space objects of the launching party. These two articles describe this treaty best. They are:

Article 5

Article 8

The Liability Convention

The liability convention was reached to an agreement in the UN General Assembly in 1971. This treaty basically elaborates on the outer space treaty’s Article 7. This convention provides the criteria on which a state becomes liable to pay damages to another state. This convention also has laid down the procedures of settlements of disputes and of the claim for the damages caused.

Article VII

The Registration Convention

The Registration Convention was negotiated and agreed upon by the General Assembly in 1974. After the ratification of The Outer Space Treaty, The Rescue Agreement and the Liability Convention, the states expressed their concerns that in order for these treaties and agreements to work effectively, there was the need of some formal recognition/identity. The need for this was that:

The Moon Agreement

The Moon Agreement has been the controversial one, amongst other conventions. This agreement was highly debated between 1972 and 1979. However, much later in 1984, it came into force with the ratification of the fifth country, Austria. This happened after the passing of the resolution 34/68.

The main points of this agreement are:

Thus, these five treaties and conventions primarily govern and constitute the majority of space laws.

The International Space Station (ISS)

The International Space Station is an international programme. It is a huge spacecraft, weighing a whopping 450 tons. It is a collaborated programme between the following nations:

The astronauts in The ISS mainly conduct scientific experiments which cannot be conducted on Earth.

The legal framework of the International Space Station

The ISS falls under the jurisdiction of various legal frameworks and obligations. It is governed on these International Agreements and Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs):

The International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement

The Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs)

Four Memoranda of Understandings were signed between these nation’s space organisations: 

The main purpose of these space agencies is to designate the roles and responsibilities of the agencies in the building and designing of the space station. These MoUs also demarcate the management structure and provide the necessary guidelines for the maximum utilisation of the space station.

Other Bilateral Arrangements

Several bodies have been created amongst the various space agencies to distribute the work and to help implement the other guidelines as decided by the IGA.

The Intergovernmental Agreement 

This agreement was signed by 14 countries. They are:

  1. The United States of America
  2. Canada
  3. Japan
  4. The Russian Federation
  5. Belgium
  6. Denmark
  7. France
  8. Germany
  9. Italy
  10. The Netherlands
  11. Norway
  12. Spain
  13. Sweden
  14. Switzerland

This agreement laid down the framework promoting cooperative long-term partnership between the signed countries and the other countries to join in future.

Who is the owner of the International Space Station?

No individual country is the owner of the ISS. It was built as a result of the collaborative efforts of five countries:

The collaborated ownership of the International Space Station is described under an International treaty, which is titled International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (The IGA). Article 6 of the IGA talks about ownership.

  1. The IGA extends the national jurisdiction of the member states into outer space, which means that the equipment and elements (E.g. Laboratories can be classified as elements) they provide are subjects of the respective partner states.
  2. Thes laws imply that space station’ owners – the United States, Canada, The Russain Federation, Japan and Europe, the various countries within the European Space Agency are to be treated as a single unit.
  3. The elements of a state are its property. By the virtue of this, if a country has any property, equipment or a laboratory, it shall fall under its jurisdiction.
  4. The application of national laws implies that in criminal cases, liability issues, cases of intellectual property and other rights the national laws of a nation must apply.
  5. In case a dispute or disputes arise on any matter, they are to be resolved on the basis of the already laid down procedures. 
  6. The fundamental norms imply that the member states retain jurisdiction and gain complete control over:

MoU on Supply of elements

All the member states contribute and bring their own elements. The memorandum of Understanding laid down the elements provided by the partners:

The Canadian Government with its representational agency the Canadian Space Agency shall provide: 

The European partner, through their space agency, the European Space Agency, shall provide these:

The Japanese Government through its space agency must provide:

The Russain Government, through its Space Agency, The Russain Space Agency, shall provide:

The United State’s Government, through its space agency NASA must provide:

Laws and liabilities in the International Space Station:

When such a big project is being undertaken many problems could arise. Such an event was foreseen and measures were planned for such dire actions. Fundamental rules of liability regarding space activities as it is laid down in the Liability convention 1972. The liabilities set under this convention and the Intergovernmental Agreement are:

  1. The Intergovernmental Agreement has set up a provision of ‘cross-waiver of liability’. This allows all the five-member states in addition to their related entities (the contractor, the subcontractor, users, customers) to claim damages from another state member or its related entities.
  2. Due to following these obligations, each state has to formally set up a contract with its own contractors and subcontractors.
  3. There exist some exceptions to the cross-waiver of liability. They are:

All the people using the Space Station agree to an inter-party waiver of liability. It is a component of their contract with the European Space Agency. It states that:

Crimes in Space

Space is considered to be ‘res communis’, meaning common ground. There are some areas which are regarded as common ground by all the states. No particular state is the sole owner of these areas. These areas include the high seas, outer space, Antarctica etc. 

The Intergovernmental Agreement of the Space Station’s member nations states that if any astronaut of a member state commits any crime in space, he/she will be subject to the laws of their states and the due course of law will proceed accordingly. 

Is Space Mining Legal?

The scientists believe that the moon and other celestial bodies can have many sustainable resources which might pave a way for providing resources for future generations. The scientists even claim that if we are able to find water on the moon, we might be able to cut down the costs of colonizing the moon by a whopping 90 per cent. It might also have other valuable minerals like platinum and whatnot, this can give humanity the further push required.  

There are some companies looking forward to conducting mining on the moon and other celestial bodies.

As we know that the outer space is free for exploration by all the states, only if it is for peaceful uses. The regulations regarding private entities are vague.

The Asteroids Act of 2015

Can you push a dead body into space?

The First Space Crime ever Committed


In this article, I have talked about International Space laws and its origin. I have answered certain questions about who makes these laws, and how they are implemented. We explored the legislation and laws applicable to the International Space Station. Finally, we have talked about the crimes in space and what are the activities that constitute to be a crime in space and what are measures undertaken to control it.


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