McGill’s MILAMOS Project: ensuring the security of outer space

April 2019

MILAMOS Group of Experts discussing and reviewing rules that are vital to ensuring the safety, security and sustainability of outer space.
The MILAMOS Group of Experts discussing and reviewing rules that are vital to ensuring the safety, security and sustainability of outer space.

The MILAMOS Project is a globally-recognised endeavour that aims to inform States, space stakeholders and the general public about the dangers of unilateralism and lawlessness in space. Identifying and clarifying customary rules applicable to military uses and applications in space will strengthen the very legal framework that has served to preserve peace and prosperity for over half a century of space exploration and use.

By David Kuan-Wei Chen, LLM’12, MILAMOS Managing Editor, and Executive Director, McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law.

In the bitterly cold week of 18-23 February 2019, an international consortium of experts and academics gathered in Montreal. They were brought together by the McGill Faculty of Law’s very own Centre for Research in Air and Space Law, which, for over four decades, has been conducting cutting-edge and innovative research on legal and policy issues surrounding the peaceful exploration and use of outer space (and true to its name, research surrounding aviation governance).

The sixth rule-drafting and consensus-forming workshop of the project to draft the McGill Manual on the International Law Applicable to the Military Uses of Space (MILAMOS) was held at McGill. With support and endorsement from stakeholder and partner institutions around the world, McGill is spearheading a global initiative to ensure activities in outer space are conducted according to the binding rules of international law.

The importance of establishing rules to protect space infrastructure and activities

While the number of space actors and activities have proliferated over the decades, “hard” laws governing the use of outer space were first drafted at the height of the Cold War.The Space Age began with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, and since then various space assets and applications have brought unprecedented benefits to humanity. Space infrastructure facilitates communications, and aids navigation on land and in the skies. Earth-observation applications help us manage natural resources, predict and fight natural calamities and significantly assist States in combating climate change. Likewise, satellites are indispensable in collecting evidence of egregious human rights violations and compliance with disarmament agreements for preserving international peace and security. Indeed, space infrastructure has become so integrated with modern life that any disruption would have devastating impacts for States, commerce, industry and people around the world.

While the number of space actors and activities have proliferated over the decades, “hard” laws governing the use of outer space were first drafted at the height of the Cold War. The United Nations space law treaties emphasise using space for “peaceful purposes”. However, it is unclear what States can and cannot do in relation to other military uses and applications using space assets. As space is widely recognised as a shared commons, this has led some to argue that the final frontier has become competitive, congested, contested, and thus increasingly vulnerable.

With the geo-politically polarised nature of the world today, and renewed competition to reach celestial bodies, it is likely that hostilities between States could extend to, or break out in, outer space. The rhetoric surrounding the establishment a “Space Force” by the United States and the recent testing of anti-satellite capabilities by India underline just how vulnerable the space domain is to increased weaponisation and unilateral actions that undermine the legal regime that has so far prevented the outbreak of global and widespread war.

The McGill Manual will fill the legal lacunae with respect to issues that for decades have been the source of debate among policy-makers, legal practitioners, military strategists and academics. The McGill Manual will comprise of around 80 black-letter rules and associated commentary on, among other crucial issues, State responsibility for space activities, the authorisation and supervision of national space activities, and rules related to situations short of an armed conflict that threaten peace. With the development of new means and methods of interfering with space assets and capabilities, clarifying the legality of the lasering, dazzling and jamming of space objects, and the threat or use of force involving space infrastructure, is now all the more important.

Creating consensus through global workshops

Rule-drafting and consensus-drafting workshops, like the one just held in Montreal,  provide the MILAMOS Group of Experts the opportunity to capture consensus on rules of the proposed Manual. Further, State observers are invited to the workshops, providing valuable opportunities to engage and receive input from officials and interested space stakeholders, thereby making the contents of the Manual even more reflective of global perspectives.

Professor Ram Jakhu addressing a group of MILAMOS experts
Professor Ram Jakhu addressing the MILAMOS Group of Experts.

“I continue to be amazed by the willingness and ability of experts from all over the world to work together in drafting and reviewing rules”, said Professor Ram Jakhu, MILAMOS Project Director and Co-Editor of the McGill Manual. “The Project has always prioritised on being international and interdisciplinary, in addition to being an objective and transparent process that fosters dialogue and consensus-building.” In June 2018, the MILAMOS Project was highlighted at the United Nations as a great model of a civil society initiative. Professor Ram Jakhu himself was recently invited to present the progress of the MILAMOS Project before delegates of the Sixth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“The strength of the MILAMOS Project is its ability to bring together experts, practitioners and academics from civilian, commercial, governmental and intergovernmental institutions across the globe who have a shared concern for the safety and security of the fragile space environment”, notes Professor Brian Havel, Director of the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law (IASL) and Chair of MILAMOS Board. Professors Armand de Mestral and Frédéric Mégret, together with graduate and post-doctoral students at the IASL, are also deeply involved in the Project, which is scheduled for completion toward the end of 2019.

Several McGill graduates are involved in the MILAMOS Project. The above photo was taken at the third rule-drafting and consensus-forming workshop of the Project, held in 2017 in Colorado Springs, USA.

October 2017: Several McGill graduates are involved in the MILAMOS Project. The above was taken at the third rule-drafting and consensus-forming workshop, held in Colorado Springs, USA.

“Together, all of us  […] are making a noteworthy difference for the present and future generations”, Professor Havel said, “Discussing military activities and matters of security in outer space has long been off-limits at the diplomatic level. However, with the neutrality and impartiality offered by an academic institution, and free from institutional or professional baggage, it is possible to discuss and reach consensus on matters of contention”. Echoing these sentiments, Professor Jakhu said: “Different perspectives, be they national, professional or personal, are important for better understanding and reaching global consensus on matters of common concern and interest”.

Nowhere is the need for mutual understanding about the economic benefits and devastating risks, and willingness to strengthen and respect commonly agreed ground rules, more important than in outer space, where the shared interests and concerns of humanity’s present and future lie. Through the MILAMOS Project, the Faculty of Law and the McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law are proud and committed to ensure that law continues to be relevant for ensuring the security and sustainability of outer space for the benefit of all countries.

For more information about the MILAMOS Project, visit mcgill.ca/milamos

July 2018: The MILAMOS Group of Experts and participants at the fourth MILAMOS Workshop, held in Montreal, Canada.

July 2018: The MILAMOS Group of Experts and participants at the fourth MILAMOS Workshop, held in Montreal, Canada.


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