Who owns the moon?
As unlikely as it may seem, the concept of space law has existed for over 50 years. E&T investigates the legality of property and natural resource issues pertaining to our nearest lunar neighbour.
"What is space law?" is one of the most frequently asked questions that I face when telling people what I do. Futuristic as it may sound, space law does exist, for a little bit more than half a century. Moreover, it is being developed and enforced on two different levels - international and national.
On the international level, there are 5 treaties that set up the basic framework for space activities and the international responsibility and liability of states for them: the Outer Space Treaty (OST), the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, the Registration Convention and the Moon Treaty.
On the national level, individual states adopt policies and binding regulations that develop the provisions of the adopted treaties in order to regulate space activities of national (including private) actors.
Does space law norms address property issues? First of all, on the international level, the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement contain some provisions that set up the property regime in outer space. Article I OST states that exploration of the outer space and of the celestial bodies is the "common province of all mankind," which means that they cannot be owned by any individual state, but belong to everyone on the Earth together. Article II of this Treaty forbids national appropriation by any means of celestial bodies, including the Moon.
Article 11 of the Moon Agreement states that the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind and reinforces the OST in declaring that the Moon is not subject to national appropriation. It further develops the provisions of the OST, laying down that "neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non- governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person."
Unfortunately, the Moon Agreement is the least popular of all the space treaties, being ratified by only 13 states - none of which is a space power. According to the principles of international law, a treaty is only binding upon the states that have accepted it as such.
According to another fundamental principle of international law, national law norms have to be in compliance with the provisions of the treaties that an individual state has ratified and adhered to. Consequently, the states - parties to the OST - have to reflect its Article II on non-appropriation in their national laws regarding space activities.
Nevertheless, there are quite a few cases of stars, comets, land on the Moon and so on being sold or offered for sale. The most famous "lunar estate agent" is the so-called Lunar Embassy. Its founder claims to have discovered a loophole in the international space law that gives him the right to claim ownership of the Moon and other celestial bodies.
Based on this - back in the 80s - he notified both the US and the Soviet Union about his claim. Neither of them nor or any other state has ever recognised as rightful what he is doing. As a follow-on to the recognition issue, the question of enforcement will be problematic for all those who ever "bought" land on the Moon or any other celestial body.
So who owns the Moon, after all? The correct legal answer to this question would be: everyone and no one!
Catherine Doldirina is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She has lectured on space law at the University of Bremen and at the European Humanities University (Lithuania). She has also tutored at the European Space Law Centre summer school on space law and policy and is a member of the International Institute of Space Law.
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