The Governance of Outer Space: Repurposing the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations

ISSSP Reflections No.60, Feburary 08, 2021

Authors: V. Siddhartha

 (Full disclosure: This article is an extended elaboration, inter alia, of my published comment on: “The Artemis Accords: repeating the mistakes of the Age of Exploration”, The Space Review, June 29, 2020.)

The niche reader who visits this site is likely to be cognizant of the contemporary scholarly work on issues of governance of and in the Space domain. Out of deference to that reader, I have listed only exemplar references published in the English language since CE 2000 of the many works the reader is likely to have at least come across; to wit: (i) some half-a-dozen works with encyclopaedic ambit ;  (ii) about a dozen books or essay collections of book-length, several chaperoned by Think Tanks in India or abroad; (iii) Proceedings, published, unpublished, or virtual of some three dozen international or national conferences or symposia with at least one (unclassified) session devoted to space security or governance of the space domain; (iv) more than four dozen papers published in scholarly journals devoted to policy issues pertinent to governance in, and of, the Space domain, including on space law, or on international relations theory.

 Also well-known, and so not specifically cited, are the readily-accessible documents on aspects of the governance of Space that flow regularly from the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), and those published by  The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

However, I have cited explicitly those references that are directly pertinent to my averments herein.

1. Space is a non-governed domain

Labelled as mankind’s common ‘heritage’ — or other appellation chosen to convey benignity — Space remains a domain that may be characterised as nongoverned: That is, while being populated by assets from an increasing number of states using their national means of access to Space, that domain is yet beyond national jurisdiction.

Masochist-readers are welcome to revel in the copious literature on the negotiating history; national and legal interpretations; changes to, and/or the fate of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967;  and on other treaties or international arrangements, with or without the force of international law, to administer relations, and adjudicate disputes, between state-adherents to those arrangements that provide for national access to, or use of Space.

My purpose here is to dilate on the promise of a little-known birth-organ of the United Nations – its Trusteeship Council (TC).  Currently dormant, but readily reawakened,  I intend to show that the TC  is particularly well-suited to the collective governance, by current and future space-farers, of Outer Space as a ‘province of all mankind’ – the appellation used in the original Outer Space Treaty (OST).

2. Dominance: The congealing of a colonial ideology

For over 500 years European history has been replete with wars that have ensued when the notion of inviolable physical boundaries enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648)  between European nation-states has been contested by one or another sovereign wanting to assert dominance by extra-territorial reach into another’s physical boundaries, or even non-material ones of religious identity, culture, linguistic affiliation or ideology.

Those contestations have continued right through to contemporary times.  Two World Wars in the Century only just passed devastated Europe’s colonial powers, even as the treasure from their colonial depredations was used to underwrite the pursuit of those wars; their colonial subjects used in both of them as cannon fodder, and their colonial territories divided and shared as spoils of those wars.

After WWII, the United States under its then-President Harry S. Truman,   drawing on the US’ own anti-colonial history – one that this millennial generation in the U.S. is perhaps even unaware of — made rapid de-colonisation a condition for any material support for the reconstruction of the then war-devastated colonial powers — for Britain and France in particular. Yet, and true to their colonial genes, these powers proffered that many of their dependent colonial territories “did not have the political wherewithal to self-govern democratically”.  The U.S. did not buy the excuse of such a self-serving argument, while yet recognising the legacy ground realities in some of the smaller dependent territories of these colonial powers.

3. The Trusteeship System of the United Nations

And so, in 1945, at the San Francisco Conference that created the United Nations (UN) and drew-up its Charter, the U.S. chaperoned an arrangement to enable these territories to be freed from colonial yoke, and be placed collectively, as de jure ‘province(s) of all mankind’  in the trust of the UN under the above-referenced Trusteeship System, and until these ex-colonial dependencies were nursed by that system into self-government.

4. Placing Outer Space as a ‘province of all mankind’ in the Trusteeship System of the United Nations.

Likewise, each of the United States and India, with the experience of their own respective anti-colonial exertions, can gain for themselves institutions-legitimised first-mover influence in the governance of Outer Space, and its potential resources.

But for such to come about, India will need to:  Remind the United States of the latter’s own anti-colonial heritage; convince her that she has more to gain as the (still) exemplar leading power in Space by eschewing the “dominance” model of its governance;  be active in constructing as an ideational equal – despite its technological supremacy — with India and other space-faring nations of the world, and place the Outer Space Treaty’s ‘province of all mankind’ in the anti-dominance trust of the only global institution that, for all its known infirmities, represents all of mankind – the United Nations.

Other exemplar references

A. Ram S. Jakhu , Joseph N. Pelton (Editors):  Global Space Governance: An International Study, Springer; 1st ed. 2017, ISBN-13 : 978-3319543635

B. Gupta, Mallick, and Lele, Eds. Space Security: Need for Global Convergence”, Pentagon Security International, 2012, for Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, ISBN: 978-8182746053

C. Symposium on the New Space Race,American Journal of International Law, Volume 113,  01 April 2019 in which, see: The Prospects for Governance,

D. Space: the new space race and its intersection with power, the rules based order and the economy, January 28-29, 2021, Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, UK .

E. The Territorialisation of Ungoverned Spaces, Conference Paper, June 2019

F. The Fate of the Outer Space Treaty, Virtual Round Table, 04 Feb. 2021

G. Michael R.Migaud, Robert A.Greer, Justin B.Bullock, Developing an Adaptive Space Governance Framework, Space Policy, Feb. 2021

H. Guido Lavalle, Ricardo I.

(i) The international orders in the fourth territory: the influence of new opportunities in outer space on governance systems and Space Law – Impacts on Sustainable Development Goals 2030 [i.e. SDGs extended to the space domain], December 29, 2019. Text available on Academia [dot] edu.

(ii) “Bringing Space Law into the 21st Century”, 15 December 2020

I. Hickman, John: “ International Relations and the Second Space Race Between the United States and China” , Astropolitics, Volume 17, 2019.

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V. Siddhartha
Adjunct Faculty, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)

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