About seventy years after the beginning of the space age, humankind stands at a critical juncture. The peaceful exploration and use of outer space through a myriad of space assets and applications have brought unprecedented benefits to humanity. The space infrastructure provides global, instant and inexpensive means of communications; aids navigation over land, the vast oceans and is instrumental for safe and secure aviation; and Earth-observation applications help in effective management of natural resources, aid in predicting and fighting natural calamities and even significantly assists humanity in fending global climate change. Likewise, satellite services are indispensable in monitoring egregious violations of human rights and compliance with disarmament agreements. Indeed, the space infrastructure has become so integrated with global economic, business and strategic systems that a disruption of this vital infrastructure would have devastating global impacts for States, commerce, industry, and people around the world.
Space is a highly valuable environment, therefore by nature, as well as by law, it must be explored and used for the benefits of all countries. While space is remote and difficult to access, recent years have seen a proliferation of States and non-state actors all vying to take advantage of the enormous benefits that outer space brings to humanity. Cooperation in the exploration and use of outer space is now just as prevalent as competition, and the final frontier is increasingly congested, contested and thus, vulnerable. With the geo-politically polarised nature of the world today, it is likely that hostilities between States could extend to, or break out in, outer space. Conflict in, through or from outer space is highly undesirable due to the devastating implications for the space systems of all nations and for life on Earth. Despite growing concerns and the oft-repeated rhetoric that an all-out war is inevitable in outer space, lawfare must be preferred over warfare, and such a war must be averted with the full strength of international diplomacy.
There have been various efforts to prevent an arms race in outer space and the breakout of conflict in the domain of space. Initiatives are ongoing at the intergovernmental level to establish transparency and confidence-building measures in relation to the conduct of and ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities. Unfortunately, none of these efforts have adequately addressed the legal nature of the range of military activities currently being conducted or are being envisaged in outer space.
Although in the terrestrial context there is an elaborate body of law which regulates the initiation and conduct of hostilities (i.e., the law on the resort to war (jus ad bellum) and the law of armed conflict (jus in bello)), the interpretation and the extent of application of this body of law in outer space has never been comprehensively and objectively addressed or authoritatively stated. In light of various stalled efforts to address common concerns of space security, there is wide consensus that the rule of law in outer space must be strengthened. For the sustainability of present and future space activities, and in solidifying the governance of space activities, there must be greater certainty on how to prevent and deter the outbreak of conflict in outer space.
The McGill Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) articulates and objectively clarifies existing law applicable to space with regard to military activities during peacetime while underlining the limitations international law places on the threat or use of force in outer space.
As noted above, economic and strategic advantages gained from space, coupled with the reliance of States and their respective armed forces on space assets for communications (SATCOM), for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), make space objects natural targets in the event of armed conflict. Due to dependence of humankind on space applications and technologies, it is not difficult to foresee how a conflict involving space assets will adversely impact economies and vital national infrastructure, and prejudice the quality of life, and even survival, of the civilian population worldwide.
Under the current international legal framework applicable to the exploration and use of outer space, certain military uses of space are compatible with the cardinal “peaceful purposes” principle that comes from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. However, the law does not expressly mention the initiation and conduct of hostilities involving space, and little State practice exists on the subject. Since the 1980s, the United Nations General Assembly has annually adopted a resolution urging States to refrain from actions that contribute to an arms race in outer space, various initiatives, such as the proposed treaty to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space (PPWT), the proposed International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICOC), and multilateral diplomatic efforts aimed at developing transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs), have amounted to little in securing tangible progress or concrete measures to ensure the sustainability and security of outer space. Late 2014, for the first time ever, the UN General Assembly reiterated that the current legal regime is no guarantee that an arms race will be prevented in outer space, and that there is a need to examine further means to prevent such a “grave danger to international peace and security”.
Recent history suggests that non-governmental efforts have been successful in influencing State behaviour particularly when such efforts objectively clarified the application of the law relating to means and methods of armed conflict in the emerging frontiers. The process and success of the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflict at Sea, the Harvard Manual on International Law Applicable to Air and Missile Warfare, and the Tallinn Manual on International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare demonstrate how international experts and engagement with governments can produce quasi-legal documents that enjoy widespread recognition and authoritativeness while avoiding many of the challenges inherent in multilateral negotiations between States on similar topics. These manuals provide a signpost to States as to how existing law place constraints on State behaviour and shape the legality of State action. The evident success of these manuals supports the conclusion that a dedicated manual should be drafted and made available to provide an important framework governing military activities in the exploration and use of the outer space.
Such a manual is essential in clarifying and emphasising that aggression in space, like in other domains, is prohibited. International law does define the legality and scope of responsible behaviour even in the midst of conflict and otherwise in situations that fall short of outright conflict, and there are legal consequences for States that breach their international obligations toward other States and the international community as a whole. Acknowledgement by States and international experts in the legal domain of these simple concepts would amount to a significant transparency and confidence-building measure, which would in turn reduce the likelihood of conflict (war) in space. Even if States do not overtly endorse these concepts, the successful completion of a manual with the input of eminent authors, experts and recognised stakeholders in the space activities will provide States and space operators with a clear and authoritative statement of the law on the basis of which crucial decisions can be made with preciseness.
The McGill Manual will describe for States how existing international law substantively limits the use of force, as well as address the legality of lesser, yet still hostile, activities by States in outer space that fall short of the use of force. The word ‘military’ is therefore used in a specialised sense, excluding benign, peacetime activities undertaken by military entities. It is also used to cover government activities, regardless of whether the military or some other agency is the author of the activity, but not to cover commercial and other non-government activities.
Under the direction of the McGill University Centre for Research in Air and Space Law a dedicated team of subject-matter experts. The MILAMOS Project promises to be the first of its kind aimed at addressing issues of the security, sustainability and governance of activities in outer space.
The proposed Manual aims to be a widely known and accepted resource on the neutral and authoritative statement of international law applicable to military activities of outer space. The target audience is government lawyers, policy-makers, decision-makers and military space operators, but the profound impact on the social and economic wellbeing and security of the world means the Manual is also expected to spark interest and debate among the general public. The academic merit of the McGill Manual will be a platform for further academic discussion and research in years to come, particularly as legal principles and policies are best kept alive with follow-up research to ensure its relevance and suitability to changing political realities and the evolving global security environment.
The authority of the McGill Manual lies in the globally-acknowledged expertise of the people gathered to draft it. The success of the manual depends on effective coordination and administration of the project and on the provision of suitable venues or spaces in which the experts will gather to collaborate. Ultimately, the Manual will be the end-product, however throughout the duration of the project, several deliverables will be achieved along the way.
As invited contributors work toward producing various sections and chapters of the Manual, shorter research papers and scientific articles on preliminary findings will be published and provide opportunities for peer review and discussion. Media events and workshops can be held to disseminate findings and ensure the relevance and continuity of the project.
This website is publicly available to collate research findings and function as a resource centre for interested parties. The accessibility of preliminary discussions and findings will ensure the knowledge created throughout the project can be disseminated to and utilised by members of the general public, government officials and academic community. Intermediate outputs such as discussion papers and media events will also help to periodically highlight the extent and necessity of clarifying the law on armed conflict in outer space and draw attention to this globally influential project.
The McGill Manual will clarify how existing international law substantively limits the circumstances in which he use of force in space is permissible as well as the types of force and weapons that States may legitimately use in space. Adherence to, or even just acknowledgement of the existence of, the Manual will increase the transparency of State actions and help build confidence between States in a domain that has historically been shrouded in secrecy and strategic interests. Overall, the Manual will contribute to the progressive development of international law and foster international peace and security and the sustainability of outer space, which is in the interest of all States, and indeed a goal of all humanity.
The target audience of the McGill Manual will be government lawyers (especially military lawyers), policy-makers, decision-makers and military space operators, but the profound impact on the social and economic wellbeing and security of the world means the Manual is also expected to spark interest and debate among a wide range of international institutions and the general public. The Manual will also be a platform for further academic discussion and research in years to come, particularly as legal principles and policies are best kept alive with follow-up research to ensure its relevance and suitability to changing political realities and the evolving global security environment.
In accordance with the expectations of the organisations which have provided grant funding, there will be interim reports on progress. The format of those interim reports is yet to be determined. The publication of preliminary findings may provide an opportunity to raise public awareness of the Manual and to promote engagement in the final outcomes. Publicity and media outreach events will make the general public and interested parties aware of the relevancy and social and intellectual benefits the Manual and process of producing the Manual will bring. As invited contributors work toward producing various sections and chapters of the Manual, there may be opportunities to publish short research papers and scientific articles associated with preliminary findings.
As a project that intersects various specialisations of law, policy and technology, the project is expected to bring together experts and stakeholders in various fields of research and study and facilitate interdisciplinary dialogue and exchange. Further, as a project that is built and dependent on a coalition of international collaborators and contributors, the project will foster academic exchange and institutional interaction that will benefit established academics as well as students who wish to be involved in the project and take advantage of the employment opportunities available to complement their own research and studies.
The concept and the need of a manual clarifying the legality of military activities and uses of outer space was developed by Wing Commander Duncan Blake, under the supervision of Professor Ram S. Jakhu, in his Master of Laws thesis submitted to the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law in 2014. Indeed, the necessity for a policy-neutral manual reflecting the consensus of the international community is in line with the mission of the McGill Institute to further research that strengthens the rule of law in outer space and improves the governance of outer space in the interests of international peace and security and for the benefit of all States.
After months of consultation and engagement with stakeholders and institutions around the world, the McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law (CRASL), which the research unit of the McGill Institute, convened a Roundtable of Experts in September 2015. This key meeting in Montreal, Canada, was made possible with an exclusive grant from the Government of Canada. The meeting was attended by representatives from various governments, militaries, space operators, scholars, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. After three days of intense deliberations, there was a clear consensus: in order to reduce the risk of conflict in outer space, there is an urgent need to develop a manual on international law applicable to military activities in outer space. The seeds of the MILAMOS Project were thus sown.
The outcome of the Roundtable of Experts provided the impetus for McGill University to assume the leadership role in establishing the governance structure and gathering the necessary financial and institutional backing to commence the MILAMOS Project. With the support of a large endowment from the Erin JC Arsenault Trust Fund at McGill University, and a 3-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, endowed to Professor Ram S. Jakhu as the Principal Investigator/Project Director, it became possible to establish a network of institutional partners across the globe. Soon thereafter, the MILAMOS Project was officially launched in May 2016 at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada.
Since its inception, the MILMAOS Project has sparked widespread interest and debate among policy-makers, academic circles and the general public. Indeed, Mr. Niklas Hedman, Chief of the Committee, Policy and Legal Affairs Section of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), Dr. David Kendall, the then Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), as well as the former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament, Amb. (retired) Paul Meyer, were in attendance at the launch of the MILAMOS Project in May 2016. The latter two advocates of peaceful and sustainable uses outer space, together with other renowned figures in the space community, are esteemed members of the Project’s Board of Advisors. The presence of key McGill officials like, Dr. Rose Goldstein, (Vice-Principal: Research and Innovation) and Prof. Daniel Jutras (former Dean of the McGill Faculty of law) at MILAMOS launch event underscored the persistent high importance and commitment McGill University attaches to the MILAMOS Project since its inception.
More than three years of the intense rule-drafting and consensus-forming process, the MILAMOS Project has gathered international renown. The Project and the Manual have been presented at various venues across the globe, including in the People’s Republic of China, India, the Russian Federation, the United Arab Emirates, and in the United States. In June 2018, at the symposium organised to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE+50), the MILAMOS Project was highlighted as a prime example of the role that civil society institutions play to bring together various actors and stakeholders involved in the exploration and use of and foster dialogue and consensus on challenging issues pertaining to space law. In October 2018, reflecting the remarkable standing of the MILAMOS Project, the rule-drafting and consensus-forming process, the latest developments, and progress surrounding the work of the Manual were presented to the delegates of the Sixth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly.
It is expected that the Manual will contribute to the progressive development of international law and foster international peace and security and the sustainability of outer space, which is in the interest of all States, and indeed a goal of all humanity. Adherence to, or even just the appreciation of the objectivity and preciseness of, the Manual will increase the transparency of State actions and help build confidence between States in the exploration and use of outer space, which has historically been shrouded in secrecy and strategic interests. A small reflection of such appreciation was apparent with the State-observance at each step of the MILAMOS rule-drafting and consensus-forming workshops.
Efforts are continuously being made to secure sponsorship and support from various institutions around the world.
The MILAMOS Project is currently the subject of several applications for government grants. Further support can be provided by way of financial contributions and/or in-kind contributions to help with the organisation of planned workshops and events at various venues in space-faring States. It is hoped that the importance of the Project, and the implications that space security and sustainability will have on all States, will attract support and input from individuals, countries and organisations that are as representative of the world as possible.
The MILAMOS Project is made possible with the kind generosity and support of, among others:
- Beijing Institute of Technology, People's Republic of China
- Erin JC Arsenault Trust Fund at McGill University
- Institute of Air and Space Law, University of Cologne, Germany
- the Government of Canada
- Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, India
- ROOM, the Space Journal, Austria
- Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
- Secure World Foundation, United States of America
- St. Petersburg State University, Russian Federation
- St. Thomas University, United States of America
- Western Sydney University, Australia