by Swiss Space Law Forum
Swiss Space Law Forum’s First Annual Conference on Space Law
The first annual conference of the Swiss Space Law Forum, titled “Space Law: Key Principles and Swiss Perspectives”, took place at the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law on the campus of University of Lausanne on 4 November 2022. The Forum, established under the Swiss Society for International Law, has as its main purpose to attract attention to space law in general and to discuss contemporary issues of space law in Switzerland, and was also able to achieve its goals through bringing together a majority of the key Swiss space actors from state, academic, and private spheres. These stakeholders presented their work and discuss general aspects of space law, its specific issues, and Switzerland’s participation in international fora. This event also hosted students from different law faculties in Switzerland and showed them the future in the space law domain and the need for space lawyers.
General Principles and the ITU Regime
The first session was on “General Aspects of Space Law” and introduced the key principles of space law and the ITU regime while also providing an overview on outer space security and sustainability initiatives. The first speaker, Dr. Merve Erdem Burger, covered the foundations of space law, the hard law (treaties) and soft law instruments (declarations and guidelines) that have emerged so far, and lastly provided a detailed summary of their key principles.
Ms. Véronique Glaude, Senior Radiocommunication Engineer in the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau then spoke on “The Role of ITU Activities and Procedures in International Space Operations”. Ms. Glaude highlighted the central role of the ITU and its framework in facilitating the shared use of radio spectrum and orbits while avoiding harmful interference, and also elaborated on the main elements of the ITU’s legal regime. She continued in describing the obligations that each operator must fulfil at the international and national levels, and concluded her talk by reviewing the challenges that new space activities pose to the ITU system and how its mechanisms evolve to ensure a stable operational environment.
Space Security and Space Sustainability
After this general introduction, the conference dived into hardcore issues emerging as a result of the use of outer space and its place in society. To this end, Prof. Nayef Al-Rodhan – of the University of Oxford and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy – spoke on “Outer Space Geopolitics, Security, and Sustainability”, and opened his talk by underlining that outer space has become a centrally important domain for human society, with many activities relying on space technology. He therefore stressed that if “outer space becomes unsafe, it will not be selectively unsafe, but rather unsafe for all.” And, according to what he demonstrated to the audience, it has already become unsafe: Space debris and ASAT testing, militarization, gaps in space law, lack of trust and transparency, lack of new international legal instruments since the Outer Space Treaty, and economic competition for resources in outer space are the proof he gave to the recent challenges against space security.
He additionally offered an analysis of the different strategic cultures, space policies, and objectives of different nations and entities in order to explain the current threats to space security posed by states. Prof. Al-Rodhan however also highlighted the many great accomplishments of human cooperation in space (such as the James Webb Telescope, the Artemis Mission, and others) and therefore stressed the need within this insecure environment for the pursuit of sustainable peace and security in space, effective space traffic management, and the change from a zero-sum/security dilemma political mindset to one of multi-sum security gains marked by symbiotic realism.
The other side of the coin of space sustainability was addressed by Prof. Dr. Thomas Schildknecht of the Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern, closing the first session with a review on measures aiming to improve sustainability in space operations. In particular, as a member of the Swiss delegation to the UN COPUOS Working Group on Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities, he provided a detailed summary and comparison of key initiatives that have been developed to help achieve these objectives. These included the IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, the UN Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, and the UN Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities, though he highlighted that none of these texts are legally binding. Prof. Schildknecht moreover explained in the details how the IADC and the UN guidelines address the problem of space debris, compared them, and underlined the lacking elements in the instruments, ultimately showing why the international community needed further instrument like the LTS Guidelines.
This instrument, which consists of a preamble and 21 guidelines, provides the policy and regulatory framework for space activities, as well as the framework on safety of space operations, international cooperation and scientific and technical research and development. In closing, Prof. Schildknecht stressed that international space traffic coordination, rules for responsible behavior, the need for bottom-up versus top-down approaches, guidelines for active debris removal and in-orbit servicing/close proximity operations, measures to regulate limited orbital capacity and prevent monopolization of orbits are all topics requiring further attention under the auspices of the Working Group on Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities.
Space Law in Switzerland
The conference also engaged into some unique Swiss-based space legal topics:
Switzerland in International Fora : The second session began with Dr. Natália Archinard (FDFA), who serves as Head of the Swiss Delegation to the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Dr. Archinard covered the basis for Switzerland’s participation in multilateral fora as stemming from, among other instruments, the Swiss Space Policy, the Foreign Policy Strategy, the Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy, and the 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy. And, as in alignment with these instruments, she described how the Swiss position is motivated to contribute to efforts assuring a safe, stable, and peaceful space environment. Dr. Archinard likewise broke down the overall structure of the existing multilateral fora and the means with which the Swiss Confederation contributes its efforts to reach the goals of the aforementioned policy instruments. This includes, in particular, Swiss engagement in a number of international initiatives and processes such as but not only the UN General Assembly committees and the Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats.
On the Future of Swiss Space Law: With the Swiss Government currently in the process of revising its Space Policy, one of the conference’s highlights was in providing a forum to discuss the status of the current Policy and the work ongoing for its future version. This special opportunity was possible thanks to the participation of Ms. Catherine Kropf, Deputy Head of the Swiss Space Office. As she explained, the Swiss Space Policy adopted in 2008 is still the central guiding instrument for Swiss space activities, though in a February 2022 decision the Federal Council mandated the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research to prepare a revised Policy for 2023. And, while the new Policy will carry over key objectives of the existing one – for example ensuring Switzerland offers a competitive environment for private industry and remains a reliable actor in international cooperation – this revised instrument will also emphasize space security and sustainability issues. Ms. Kropf also shared the background and context of Switzerland’s other exciting initiative to develop a national space law. In this regard, she described the development timeline in detail, which is set to conclude in 2027. This new law will assure that Switzerland can meet its international obligations, provide legal certainty to private operators as well as the state, establish a supportive regulatory framework that creates a competitive environment for the private sector. Furthermore, the Law will also address issues of liability and assure alignment with the new Swiss Space Policy.
Private Space Sector in Switzerland
In the second session the Swiss Space Law Forum also wanted to give the chance to private space actors to share their views and perspectives. Mr. Edward Burger, Manager for Regulatory and Space Law Affairs at Astrocast SA and Mr. Romain Buchs, Space Policy Analyst of ClearSpace SA contributed in this part.
In his presentation, Mr. Burger sought to synthesise all the content expressed up to that point in the conference and provide a sort of road map for a private operator seeking to understand where and how to proceed in meeting their obligations and taking part in regulatory fora. In learning about space law, regulations, and space security and sustainability initiatives, a private operator faces a difficult path of determining which tasks they must perform, which they should perform, and which they might want to perform, depending on various factors. Using hypothetical space operators with different mission profiles, Mr. Burger led the audience through the steps these operators would take, starting with the ITU filing procedure and proceeding to national level licensing (taking the Swiss system as an example), then to the means that private operators have available to shape international legal and regulatory change, and concluding with how they can conform to different international initiatives relating to safe space operation.
Mr. Romain Buchs provided deep insights into how the current legal and regulatory framework bears on operators such as ClearSpace, which is developing systems for safely deorbiting space debris. Space debris removal as an activity exists within the same space law framework as covered previously in the conference, though other instruments also are relevant, such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee’s guidelines and also the standards of the International Organization for Standards. Mr. Buchs furthermore covered how different nations, such as the US, the UK, and France, have implemented existing treaty obligations relating to ClearSpace activities into national law; as for Switzerland, he offered comments on the current situation and how a new Swiss Space Law could offer a beneficial legal regime for ClearSpace operations.
Few take home messages
“Space Law: Key Principles and Swiss Perspectives” presented the legal instruments on different topics in space law and highlighted both its strengths as well as the challenges it faces. Indeed, while the first session provided the audience with an excellent grounding in space law, the international regulatory framework, and many of the most pressing issues facing space in general, the second session featured unique contributions from several of the main space-related entities in Switzerland. However, a common thread ran through these two sessions: Many speakers stressed the absence of hard law rules (especially in the areas of safety or sustainability), as well as of a mechanism for monitoring and enforcing the current rules. This situation was however not demotivating for the speakers or audience. Rather, the impression at the end of the event was that all were even more motivated to promote debate and disseminate knowledge on space law, with the aim of raising awareness of the importance of protecting space, and therefore of the importance of regulating it appropriately.
Sirine Asfour holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations and is currently pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in law at the University of Geneva. Co-founder of the Swiss Space Law Forum, Sirine’s ambition is to participate in the development of space law in Switzerland and internationally. Sirine is also an intern at the EuroMoonMars research institute. She is working on the role of international law and diplomatic instruments in the implementation of the “Moon Village” by ESA.
Dr. Merve Erdem Burger is an academic focusing on international law and especially space law, and until recently a Research Assistant at the Ankara University Faculty of Law. She received her bachelor, master, and PhD from the same university, while also earning the qualifications to practice law in her home country, Turkey .Merve’s prior research has concerned the systematic and progressive interpretation of international space treaties, dispute settlements in space law, the international responsibility of states for outer space activities and, environmental aspects of space law. In January 2023, Merve will begin a post-doctoral research program at the University of Neuchâtel, under a Swiss National Science Foundation fellowship; her work will focus on the Implementation of international space Law by domestic law. In addition to the Swiss Space Law Forum, she is also a co-founder of the Turkey-based association Space Exploration Society, which seeks to promote the space sector broadly in Turkish society.
Edward Peter Burger is a specialist in space legal and telecommunications regulatory affairs, currently managing Astrocast’s regulatory portfolio. He completed his Master in the Law of Space Activities and Telecommunications from the Université Paris-Sud (DAST program). During his master, he interned at Euroconsult and participated in the 2017 Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court, and then worked one year at the European Space Policy Institute. Following, Edward led the regulatory portfolio of Leaf Space Srl, a ground-segment-as-a-service operator based in Milan, and in February 2021 joined Astrocast. He regularly participates in space legal/regulatory research projects and is a member of the International Institute of Space Law.
François Perriard. Having always been fascinated by the links between different peoples, cultures and countries, François decided to pursue a degree in international relations at the University of Geneva, before starting a second bachelor’s degree in law at the University of Fribourg with the aim of later specialising in public international law. In parallel to his studies, he is one of the co-founders of the Swiss Space Law Forum within the Swiss Society of International Law, which aims to bring together anyone interested in this branch of law by organising meetings and conferences. François is about to start a small research project on a topic of international environmental law as part of his bachelor’s degree, and plans to do his master’s degree in the same field.