Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In the Shadow of the Moon Treaty

This is one piece of prospective international law that you may never have heard of, but it was a rather prominent thing among certain circles in the late 1970s. The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which is generally known as the Moon Treaty just for conservation of letters, was introduced in the wake of the Apollo missions in an attempt to establish an international regime for how people would deal with other worlds in the future - or, as it may well have turned out had the treaty honestly come into force, wouldn't.

That's not to say that the Moon Treaty is a horrible crock. There are important things with in it, such as Article 3, which forbids the installation of military bases or weapons of mass destruction on or orbiting the moon, and Article 6, which protects freedom of scientific research by anyone on the moon - and by extension anywhere in the solar system other than Earth, as that's what this treaty was meant to apply to. They were not thinking small back in the 1970s.

Actually... they were, just in a different way.

On the bright side, it would mean that you wouldn't have to worry about some joker writing "EAT AT JOE'S" on the near side.

So what's the problem? Apparently that the Moon Treaty, despite not having been signed and ratified by any state relevant in the modern space program, could be argued to have wormed its way into the status of "customary law," and binding upon non-States Parties because... well, presumably because they haven't been carrying out activities in violation of its terms, notwithstanding the fact that no state on Earth has had the capacity to do so since the 1970s, with the last Saturn V launch that put Skylab into orbit. Still, I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know whether legal scholars would take "inability to take action" into account for this. Michael Listner at The Space Review wrote an overview of the situation the other day, which I encourage you to read.

There are several massive sticking points, which I went over in a post last June. Reading it now, the Moon Treaty strikes me as something that could only have been drafted by a one-planet civilization, and its terms are understandable in the context of a one-planet civilization; I may be a space booster, but even I recognize it will be a long, hard, expensive road before human presence off Earth becomes something more permanent. The problem with the treaty as I see it, though, is that it seems able to very effectively strangle any attempt to build any kind of off-Earth human presence.

It strikes me as rather Earth-chauvinistic... and in a bad way. Article 7 lays out that "States Parties shall take measures to prevent the disruption of the existing balance of its environment, whether by introducing adverse changes in that environment, by its harmful contamination through the introduction of extra-environmental matter or otherwise" - language that could easily be used to throw cold water on any kind of organized resource extraction on, say, an asteroid. It seems a bit out of joint - do nothing about adverse changes in the environment of Earth, but make damn sure that nothing bad will happen to airless rocks where nothing will ever, ever live unless we make it so.

I'm not saying that something like the Moon Treaty could never work. It's not like it forbids activities in space... but I can see its terms actually leading to conflict; since "States Parties have the right to exploration and use of the moon without discrimination of any kind," I could easily envision a situation similar to that which comes up in Issui Ogawa's The Next Continent, with construction-phase rivalry between the NASA and private Japanese lunar bases - it would be easy for some State Party to be an asshole by actively and "innocently" getting in the way of any exploration or development attempts that it doesn't like. It's just that in a form such as this, especially when it's hewing so heavily to nebulous "international regimes," I'm rather skeptical of how much progress would have been made under it - aside from progress on how to violate the spirit of the treaty while abiding to its letter.

The ideals of the Moon Treaty are good. What's really necessary is to figure out a way to bring them into the twenty-first century without strangling the spirit that would make it necessary.

good thing chairface chippendale didn't have to worry about this

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