Why is it important to consider human rights in space?

From most people’s perspectives, space law is a fairly niche field. Even more niche are particular sub-fields of space law, such as space human rights law. Despite being so niche, though, one can argue that space human rights law is extremely important. It defines how humans treat each other as they expand into new off-planet environments. It thus fundamentally shapes how humanity engages with space. To learn more about the intersection of human rights and space exploration, we spoke to Jonathan Lim, a solicitor at the law firm WiseLaw. He is also the founder of Jus Ad Astra, a project at WiseLaw that develops legal principles pertaining to space exploration. 

What role do human rights play in space exploration?

Human rights are inalienable and universal values that recognize the inherent value of each person. They are based upon the common values of dignity, equality, and respect shared across all cultures, religions, and philosophies. The intersection between human rights and outer space can be viewed through two perspectives. 

First, outer space technologies can be used to support and further the enforcement and realization of human rights terrestrially. This has been illustrated through the use of Earth observation to help decisionmakers understand trends, evaluate needs, and create sustainable development policies in the collective interest. 

Indeed, satellites have already been utilized to monitor human rights violations concerning the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya populations in Burma, to track air quality measurements over Indonesia, to assist in agriculture and sustainable development practices in Kenya, and to help combat bushfires here in Australia. 

This dimension of human rights and space can be observed through ongoing efforts by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs’ Space4SDGs initiative. The initiative seeks to realize space’s potential to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A second way to consider the intersection between human rights and space is to think of the extension of terrestrial human rights into the domain of outer space affairs. Technological advancement can take priority over the development of law, prioritizing humanity’s advancement into space over basic human rights. This can pose acute risk to the value and presence of human life in outer space. Events like the 1960 Nedelin catastrophe, the 1967 Apollo 1 Fire, and the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster highlight the immense human cost and consequences that arise when governments seek to prioritize national prestige over safety standards and basic human rights.

Addressing the technical, physiological, and policy challenges that space presents to humanity necessitates the enforcement of basic and fundamental human rights that are conducive to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The transition of human rights values and principles into outer space draws upon various areas of the law, including the rule of law, environmental law, property law, health law, and economic, social, and cultural law.

Accordingly, where human rights can be considered in all circumstances and applied extraterritorially, the international human rights framework provides the ideal mechanism through which we can realize and enforce human rights in outer space. The current framework is premised upon nine core international agreements that are maintained and enforced under the authority of dedicated UN bodies and special rapporteurs. 

Within the context of space exploration, the protection and promotion of human rights across isolated human communities in the expanse of outer space is necessary to create a stable and harmonious environment conducive to human survival and prosperity. The application of human rights is thus beneficial in supporting the lasting transference of universal values and ethical practices, promoting environmentally sustainable practices, and maintaining the rule of law. 

What needs to be done to advance the way space exploration addresses human rights?

Where space has developed into an increasingly commercialized and competitive environment, the advancement of human rights into space is crucial. Such advancement maintains international peace and security. It requires the collaborative efforts of governments, private businesses, and stakeholders under UN leadership.

Governments must take steps to develop and enforce basic safety standards and legal guidelines for human spaceflight activities within their space programs. They should cooperate with bilateral partners to cultivate a wider international consensus about using such standards in compliance with international human rights obligations. 

Space companies engaged in the development of space applications, human spaceflight activities, and space tourism must recognize the need for basic human rights protections; this is important for fostering a stable and responsible space industry. Self-regulation and the adoption of best-practice guidelines are two ways that can help create a balance between a regulatory vacuum and an environment of overregulation.

As part of the Jus Ad Astra project, we are working to develop the legal basis for the enforcement of several core human rights values and principles integral to space activities and humanity’s long-term presence in outer space. Our efforts are centered on the right to water, the right to a breathable atmosphere, and the right to a habitable environment.

How did you become interested in the intersection of space exploration and human rights?

My interest in the intersection of human rights and outer space arose from my personal interest in science fiction shows and movies – including Stargate, The Expanse, and the Martian. Across science fiction media, the notion of law and order often appears as secondary to technological elements and plot development. However, the presence of law and human rights within science fiction plays a central role in resolving conflict, addressing moral dilemmas, and balancing our perspectives on different cultures.

One key example which often comes to mind concerns the opening episode of The Expanse. In the episode, United Nations Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala sought to extract information from a Belter using “gravity torture” – where simply subjecting the individual’s microgravity-adjusted physiology to Earth’s natural gravity was sufficient to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. The question thus arises whether this constitutes torture, and whether that person’s human rights are being violated.

The intersection of human rights and space thus presents a new opportunity to ensure all human beings are treated with dignity, equality, and respect. It is an opportunity to influence how technology and the environment of outer space will inhibit or support humanity’s presence among the stars.