Author Archive for
Chris Borgen

Emojis and International Law

by Chris Borgen

Emojis: love them or hate them, you can’t seem to get away from them.  🙂  The smiley face, the thumbs-up, the smiling pile of poop, and the hundreds of other little symbols and pictograms that get used in text messages, tweets, and the like.  And tomorrow, June 21, we will have 71 new emojis to play with.  Why will there be new emojis tomorrow? And what does this have to do with international law? Read on…

First, a bit of background: while the smiley face is very much an iconic 1970’s symbol (“Have a Nice Day!’), the use of what we would call emoji in electronic communications started in the 1990’s in Japan, for use in cellphone texts.  Each little frowny face or thumbs-up, though, needs to be mapped using a common standard, or else it would only be able to be seen on certain platforms (say, an Android smartphone) but not on others (such as a Mac).

Consequently, there is actually an approved set of “official” emojis that can work across multiple software and hardware platforms and that new emojis are released once a year by a standard-setting organization called the Unicode Consortium, “a non-profit corporation devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data, particularly the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in all modern software products and standards.”  The Consortium’s membership includes Apple, Adobe, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Yahoo, among others. By providing cross-platform standards, the Consortium is essentially making the soft law of the interoperability of symbols across different programs and devices. 😎

Proposals for new emojis are made to the Unicode Consortium, which then reviews and decides which symbols  should become standard and how they should be encoded. There are currently about 1,300 emojis, with about 70 added each year.   (By way of perspective the total  “Unicode Standard is mammoth in size, covering over 110,000 characters. “) The list of new emojis being released on June 21 is here.  Can’t wait to use the team handball emoji!

But, besides this being an unexpected story of industry standard-making bodies and funny little symbols, one must keep in mind that the Unicode Consortium’s responsibilities go well beyond encoding the broken heart glyph. As NPR reported last year:

The Unicode Consortium’s job has always been to make basic symbols work across all computers and other devices, but the emoji has put the group at the center of pop culture.

“Our goal is to make sure that all of the text on computers for every language in the world is represented,”

However, as Mashable notes:

getting characters added to the Unicode Standard is a long, drawn-out process. In addition to the original Japanese emoji characters, the Unicode additions included other new characters — such as country maps and European symbols.

What this means is that there is a data file that maps every individual emoji symbol to a Unicode code point or sequence.

But this is just the standardization of the symbols. Supporting emoji, as well as the specific design of the emoji characters, is up to software makers.

Thus, the administrative scaffolding that makes emojis ubiquitous is based on a non-governmental standard-setting body using soft law to allocate Unicode points or sequences to symbols (be they emojis, letters, mathematical symbols, etc.) that are approved by the Consortium.   The approval of emojis is simply one example of a set of responsibilities with much broader implications than just whether “nauseated face” deserves its own encoding. (According to the Consortium, it does.)

Besides interest in the process of institutional decision-making in standard-setting bodies such as the Consortium, there is also a question  of whether the Consortium’s overall goal of ensuring that the script of every language in the world is represented digitally is in tension the current focus on encoding more and more emoji.  Some have expressed concern that this focus on emojis may divert time and resources away from the protection of endangered languages. Peoples who are trying to preserve endangered languages (such as, for example, Native American and First Nation languages) would be greatly helped if the alphabet of that language would be as easy to read across a variety of computer platforms and digital devices as a smiley-face. Consider this an issue of resource allocation.  Letterjuice, a Brighton and Barcelona-based type foundry, posted a thoughtful essay on Unicode and language rights, which stated: (more…)

Alexander Hamilton, the New Republic, and the Law of Nations

by Chris Borgen

There’s this musical on Broadway. It’s called Hamilton.  You might have heard of it. It’s causing legal scholars to say things like “I admired Hamilton since before he could rap,” and “My Shot has a pretty good lyric but have you tried Federalist no. 6?”

Anyway, a short note on A. Ham. and the law of nations seems in order.  For the following, I am particularly indebted to  Mark Janis’ book America and the Law of Nations 1776-1939 (Oxford 2010), David Bederman’s volume The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution: Prevailing Wisdom (Cambridge 2008) and Hamilton’s Republic (The New Press 1997), a compilation of writings by Alexander Hamilton and later “Hamiltonian” writers edited and introduced by Michael Lind. These authors and others writing about Hamilton do not necessarily come to the same conclusions regarding his views on what we now call international law, but rather provide  varying perspectives on a complex man.

By way of background, the views of the founders were in part shaped by their education in classical history as well as Enlightenment philosophy.  David Bederman, in his study of classical thought and the U.S. Constitution, wrote that “[s]tarting first with classical writers in Greek, the Framing generation particularly prized the works of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Polybius, and Plutarch, in that rising order of esteem.” (Bederman, 15.)   Thucydides’ international realism and Polybius’ conception of a “mixed constitution” combining monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy were especially influential on the founding generation. Hamilton was particularly fond of quoting Plutarch, whose biographies combine issues of public policy and state building with individual moral choice. (Bederman,16-17; 22.) Hamilton and other founders may have used “instrumental classicism,” to support their political arguments, but they also did a “reputable job in trying to make sense of antiquity,” with Hamilton among the “best” classicists. (Bederman, 228.)

Beyond classical history and philosophy, the founders were also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and, as a group, were well-versed in the 18th century law of nations and often referred to it in their writings. Mark Janis, in the first volume of his history of the United States and international law, argued that “[n]o group of America’s leaders have ever been more mindful of the discipline[of international law] than were the Founding Fathers.” (Janis, 24.)

In relation to studies in natural law at Kings College (later, Columbia University), Alexander Hamilton suggested in 1775 a reading list of “Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui.” (Janis, 24-25.) This shows, at least, his exposure to foundational texts of international law.  However, suggesting a reading list on natural law and actual application of the law of nations in practice are two different things. So, how concerned was Alexander Hamilton with the application of the law of nations to the “young, scrappy, and hungry” republic?

Here we can see some divergence in interpretation by scholars. Janis notes that in 1795 Hamilton (more…)

I’d Like to Be Under the South China Sea in a Crewed Deep Sea Platform in the Shade

by Chris Borgen

Earlier this week, Julian and I each posted about the international legal issues of the Moon and asteroid mining plans of U.S. companies. Those projects may have sounded like something out of Space 1999 but now we hear of one of China’s near-term priorities that sounds like SeaLab 2020.

Bloomberg reports:

China is speeding up efforts to design and build a manned deep-sea platform to help it hunt for minerals in the South China Sea, one that may also serve a military purpose in the disputed waters.

Such an oceanic “space station” would be located as much as 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) below the surface…

This would be by far the deepest long-term undersea facility (as opposed to a deep sea vessel, such as a submarine). By way of context, the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations Facility (NEEMO), the “world’s only undersea research station” is anchored at a depth of 62 feet.

China’s leadership explains that, in part, this base will help with a new frontier of resource development, using rhetoric that is at times similar to the arguments some make concerning private space ventures on the Moon and asteroids:

President Xi Jinping said at a national science conference in May: “The deep sea contains treasures that remain undiscovered and undeveloped, and in order to obtain these treasures we have to control key technologies in getting into the deep sea, discovering the deep sea, and developing the deep sea.”

But, beyond looking for deep sea resources, the concern is that the base is part of China’s gambit for sovereignty over much of the South China Sea.  However, while establishing this undersea platform may become part of China’s political argument for its sovereignty claims, it does nothing to support the legal argument. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), this undersea platform would probably be treated as an “artificial island,” like an oil rig.  At the time that UNCLOS was being drafted, large undersea bases were more the province of James Bond movies than treaty negotiations, so the closest analogy in the text is what would likely be applied in this case.  (For a discussion on sea platforms, “seasteading,” and sovereignty claims by non-state actors, see this post.)

Although it is not clear where the location of this undersea lab would be, UNCLOS has similar provisions concerning artificial islands located in an Exclusive Economic Zone (article 60) or on the continental shelf (article 80, which refers back to the article 60 text, with any applicable adjustments).

The text from article 60 states:

Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.

So, in short, building this base would not change China’s territorial rights.

However, the concern is that, while it may not help the legal argument, another goal of the base may be to bolster the political argument with some military muscle. The Bloomberg article quotes the following:

“To develop the ocean is an important strategy for the Chinese government, but the deep sea space station is not designed against any country or region,” said Xu Liping, a senior researcher for Southeast Asian affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-run institute.

“China’s project will be mainly for civil use, but we can’t rule out it will carry some military functions,” Xu said. “Many countries in the world have been researching these kind of deep water projects and China is just one of those nations.”

Whether China actually builds this base–and if so, where–remains to be seen. If it does so, it will also be interesting to assess whether the base turns out to be most useful as a scientific research facility, a political gambit, or a military base.

Abkhazia Defeats Panjab in Overtime for ConIFA World Football Cup

by Chris Borgen

I know Opinio Juris is probably not where you come for sports updates but this is the result of the ConIFA World Football Cup, a tournament among unrecognized regimes, minorities, and stateless peoples.

For more on ConIFA, statehood, and nationalism, see my post from last week.  In short, the ConIFA competition may be an attempt not only to boost morale within unrecognized regimes, ethnic enclaves, and stateless people, but also remind the rest of the world of the claims that these groups have, be they claims of statehood or simply a desire to be recognized to exist as a people. Consider the following from an article posted by Al Jazeera:

…CONIFA’s president Per-Anders Blind explained how this World Cup has nothing to do with politics and borders.

“Our aim is to show that football can be a tool to bring our members to the global stage. We all have the same right to exist,” he said.

Chewing on a little pouch of “snus’, a Swedish chewing tobacco, Blind described how the idea for the CONIFA World Cup was inspired by his own life experience.

“My father is a reindeer herder in the Swedish and Norwegian mountains. I was born and raised as part of a group of forgotten people, the Sami, and endured discrimination because of that.”

Blind’s comments are reminiscent of the Olympic ideal to “use sport to foster peace and reconciliation, underlining the power of the Games to promote tolerance and solidarity among the participants, fans and people all over the world.”  Perhaps the founders of ConIFA were frustrated that membership international sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and (particularly relevant to ConIFA) FIFA, was too intertwined with statehood to extend these ideals to unrecognized regimes and stateless peoples. As the ConIFA website states, echoming the Olympic ideal,

CONIFA aims to build bridges between people, nations, minorities and isolated regions all over the world through friendship, culture and the joy of playing football. CONIFA works for the development of affiliated members and is committed to fair play and the eradication of racism.

But it can be difficult to set aside issues of politics, borders, and laws when the membership of ConIFA is practically defined by its tension with existing borders, politics,and/ or laws. While the structures of the International Olympic Committee and FIFA may favor recognized states, the tournament organization of ConIFA itself steps from the sports field into the arena of high politics.   Abkhazia, the Georgian breakaway region, not only won the tournament but was also the host. While the tournament may be a morale-booster for the population of Abkhazia, it was played in territory that Georgia views was taken from it by a Russian military invasion.   The Al Jazeera article notes that:

Georgian officials have complained that the CONIFA tournament is illegal since it it lacks Georgia’s authorisation within what it considers to be its territorial boundary. According to Georgian law, participants entering Abkhazia through Russia would be entering Georgian territory illegally.

The ConIFA World Football Cup symbolizes different things for different people. For some, it is an affirmation that they, too, matter. For others, the tournament is affront to the rule of law. And for some, it might just be a chance to watch the home team play a game of soccer. In any case, though, it matters.

Videos and summaries of the games are available at the ConIFA website. (And, by the way, Northern Cyprus beat ConIFA heavyweights Padania for the third place trophy.)

Should the U.S. Approve a Commercial Moon Mining Venture?

by Chris Borgen

Well, Julian beat me to the punch by a few minutes, but here’s my take…

The Wall Street Journal reports:

U.S. officials appear poised to make history by approving the first private space mission to go beyond Earth’s orbit, according to people familiar with the details.

The government’s endorsement would eliminate the largest regulatory hurdle to plans by Moon Express, a relatively obscure space startup, to land a roughly 20-pound package of scientific hardware on the Moon sometime next year.

It also would provide the biggest federal boost yet for unmanned commercial space exploration and, potentially, the first in an array of for-profit ventures throughout the solar system.

Moon Express is a company looking towards extracting resources from the moon. They explain on their website:

Most of the elements that are rare on Earth are believed to have originated from space, and are largely on the surface of the Moon. Reaching for the Moon in a new paradigm of commercial economic endeavor is key to unlocking knowledge and resources that will help propel us into our future as a space faring species.

There are a variety of different business models for the growing commercial space industry. Some companies are focused on providing launch services for ferrying cargo and crew to orbit and beyond (SpaceX, United Launch Alliance), others have models based space “tourism” (Virgin Galactic), or providing the modular building blocks of space habitats (Bigelow Aerospace) or extracting resources from asteroids or the moon (Planetary Resources, Moon Express). It is this last business model, resource extraction,  that particularly challenges existing regulatory structures, the Outer Space Treaty and  the Moon Agreement.

The U.S. is not a party of the Moon Agreement. However, it is important to note that the Agreement states, in part:

Article 11

1.       The moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind, which finds its expression in the provisions of this Agreement and in particular in paragraph 5 of this article.

2.       The moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

3.       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. The placement of personnel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities, stations and installations on or below the surface of the moon, including structures connected with its surface or subsurface, shall not create a right of ownership over the surface or the subsurface of the moon or any areas thereof. The foregoing provisions are without prejudice to the international regime referred to in paragraph 5 of this article…

7.       The main purposes of the international regime to be established shall include:

           (a)    The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the moon;

           (b)    The rational management of those resources;

           (c)    The expansion of opportunities in the use of those resources;

           (d)    An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the moon, shall be given special consideration.

[Emphases added.]

Julian and others discussed similar provision in the Outer Space Treaty in relation to asteroid mining in  these posts and  comments: 1, 2.

Based on this text,  some have argued that one cannot mine the Moon or asteroids for private profit.  Julian has set out in his posts an interpretation of the OST language that would allow private ventures.  Others, such as Richard Bilder, have concluded that the regulatory uncertainties regarding mining the Moon argues in favor of constructing a clear multilateral legal regime.

International law can play an important role in this burgeoning field. Rather than attempting to ban such mining enterprises, international law can provide a framework so that such ventures can have greater certainty and better assess risks, as well as have certain limits on their activities. A multilateral agreement can recognize the property rights of companies extracting resources, define where resources can and cannot be extracted, define a regime of noninterference among mining ventures (there are broader noninterference norms in the existing OST and Moon Agreement), and so on. Such an agreement would appreciate the opportunities of this new frontier of exploration and economic activity but also provide some reasonable bounds to avoid conflict, avoid the wasteful degradation of asteroids or the moon, and ban certain activities that could endanger the public. I am skeptical of any attempts, though, at large-scale wealth redistribution. That did not work in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (and needlessly hampered the acceptance of an important treaty)  and I see no reason why there would be a different outcome here.

This is why the U.S.’s taking a step forward to approve a private mission my a moon mining company has significant implications.  The Journal continues:

The expected decision, said the people familiar with the details, is expected to set important legal and diplomatic precedents for how Washington will ensure such nongovernmental projects comply with longstanding international space treaties. The principles are likely to apply to future spacecraft whose potential purposes range from mining asteroids to tracking space debris.

Approval of a formal launch license for the second half of 2017 is still months away…

But this is only the first of many steps that U.S. companies may be taking in private space exploration. Elon Musk has announced that SpaceX plans to send an uncrewed lander to Mars around 2018 and a crewed mission around 2026. If that timetable holds, and if states do not jumpstart their Mars programs then the first person on Mars will have been sent by a private company, not a national space program (The key word, of course, being “if.”) I believe the current NASA scenario is to land a crew sometimes in the mid 2030’s.

Although US companies are currently the main actors in these private space ventures, that will not always be the case.  These are early days, still. The “commercial space race” is still among toddlers. But those baby steps quickly become small steps. And then giant leaps.

To answer the question of the title of this post: should the U.S. approve this commercial moon mining venture? If it meets U.S. regulatory requirements and in the absence of clear international law to the contrary: Yes.

But it is also in the interest of American companies, and the US as a whole, to clarify multilateral regulations concerning the commercial exploitation of the Moon and other celestial bodies.  Now is the time to define some ground rules for everyone in the space race.


Why the World Cup of the Unrecognized Matters [Updated]

by Chris Borgen

States and nations are not the same thing.  A nation is a “people,” itself a difficult concept to define under international law. A state is a recognized political entity that meets certain criteria. International lawyers will tell you that the characteristics of statehood include a defined territory, a government, a permanent population, and the ability to enter into foreign relations.

State formation in the 19th century and also right after World War I often sought to build states for nations (hence the term “nation-state”) but the terms are not coterminous.

So what are the hallmarks of nationhood? Many know in their hearts that there may be no more important mark of nationhood than a national soccer team. C’mon, you know it’s true.

And sometimes, peoples would like to remind you that they are nations—if not states!—and want to be recognized as such (nations or states, it gets a little blurry).

So, pay attention, soccer fans and international lawyers, because this weekend will be the final match in the 2016 Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA) World Football Cup, sometimes referred to as the World Cup of the unrecognized.  According to this NPR report, host Abkhazia is the current favorite after Western Armenia and Kurdistan were unexpectedly eliminated.

The first ConIFA World Football Cup was played in 2014 and seems to be the successor to the VIVA World Cup, about which I had previously written.

ConIFA should not be confused with FIFA, the international federation of football associations. As I had explained in a post from a couple of years ago, membership in FIFA is not based on being a state, but rather on being a football association.  Thus, if you look at a list of FIFA member associations, as England and Wales are separate associations, they have separate World Cup teams. Nonetheless, joining FIFA can be subject at times to some of the same political tensions as the recognition of a state.

According to FIFA’s statutes (.pdf), to be eligible to become a member of FIFA, an applicant must first be a member of one of the six main football confederations: the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the Union des Associations Européennes de Football (UEFA), the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), or the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). Without going into all the statutes of these individual confederations, it is likely that some vote among the existing member associations in a given confederation will be a first hurdle that an aspirant FIFA-member must pass. (See, for example, UEFA’s rules (.pdf).)

Thus, although membership in FIFA is technically not based on statehood, the process largely relies on statehood and state-based football organizations (but for noted exceptions, such as England and Wales). Consequently, unrecognized entities such as South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh have little chance of seeing their football associations become part of a confederation, let alone FIFA.

Now consider ConIFA’s  membership rules, which are linked not to statehood, but to “nationhood” or being a “people”:

CONIFA is made for national teams that represent a nation which is not a member of FIFA (yet). For that reason only non-members of FIFA can join CONIFA. The second requirement is that the applicant is represent of a nation. The following table explains in detail what we consider a “nation”:

1.The Football Association is a member of one of the six continental confederations of FIFA.

2. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of the IOC.

3. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of one of the member federations of ARISF.

4. The entity represented by the Football Association is in possession of an ISO 3166-1 country code.

5. The entity represented by the Football Association is a de-facto independent territory.

6. The entity represented by the Football Association is included on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories.

7. The entity represented by the Football Association is included in directory of countries and territories of the TCC.

8. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of UNPO [Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization] and/or FUEN [Federal Union of European Nationalities].

9. The entity represented by the Football Association is a minority included in the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.

10. The entity represented by the Football Association is a linguistic minority, the language of which is included on the ISO 639.2 list.

Every Football Association that fulfills at least one of the above criteria is very welcome to apply for CONIFA membership!

[Emphases and bracketed text added.]

As for the aspiration of at least some of these entities to become generally recognized as states, consider the parenthetical “(yet)” from the first sentence.

And why might a a sports tournament be important to people with much bigger issues to worry about? Because you can cheer your team, wave your flag, feel a sense of unity, sing when your winning and… yes, you can actually win. And if you don’t there’s always next year.

When you live in an unrecognized regime, you take your wins where you can get them.

Whether any of these associations become part of FIFA, let alone whether or not those entities that also seek to be recognized as states will ever achieve that goal, is a long and doubtful journey.  But in many cases that is due to reasons of military intervention, history, and/or international law. For today, there is a football to be played.

When A.I. Met R.O.I.

by Chris Borgen

Over the years a few of us have written issues concerning battlefield robots. (See, for example: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)  Sometimes, we had links to remarkable videos of quadruped robots stomping through forests. Those robots and videos were made by Boston Dynamics, a company that started from an MIT research group.

Besides its designing quadruped robots, Boston Dynamics gained further renown when, in 2013, it was acquired by Google as part of that company’s broad push into robotics. Just last month, one of Boston Dynamics’ new videos wen viral; it highlighted its two-legged Atlas robot walking indoors, on snowy hillsides, lifting and stacking boxes, and being pushed by a human (and righting itself). Yesterday, Google announced that it was selling Boston Dynamics. Why? And what does this say about all the prognostications about the rise of the robots, either on the battlefield or in the workplace?

At its most basic level, the story here seems to be as much about the difficulties of post-acquisition integration of business cultures and goals as it is about robotics. An article in Bloomberg Business notes:

Executives at Google parent Alphabet Inc., absorbed with making sure all the various companies under its corporate umbrella have plans to generate real revenue, concluded that Boston Dynamics isn’t likely to produce a marketable product in the next few years and have put the unit up for sale, according to two people familiar with the company’s plans.

After Boston Dynamics’ 2013 acquisition, it was made part of Google’s broader robotics initiative, called Replicant. (Query whether naming the division after the murderous androids of Philip K.Dick’s dystopian classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became the movie Blade Runner, was a good idea.) Bloomberg Business explains:

At the heart of Replicant’s trouble, said a person familiar with the group, was a reluctance by Boston Dynamics executives to work with Google’s other robot engineers in California and Tokyo and the unit’s failure to come up with products that could be released in the near term.

While the issue inside of Google was less about the technology of artificial intelligence (AI) than about the return on the investment (ROI) of the robotics company acquisitions, according to Bloomberg Business the Atlas video did cause concern among some of the public relations folks at Google over whether humanoid robots  would be perceived as taking jobs from real human. Plus, as one PR person put it, some people found the robot “terrifying.” (Yeah, that “Replicant” name-choice seems increasingly like a bad idea. At least they didn’t call the business unit the “Terminator Division.”)

Many  have spent time writing and talking about the legal issues related to the use of remotely controlled or autonomous battlefield robots. The immediate issues stemmed from the use aerial drones, of course, but on the horizon has been the possibility of robots being deployed in ground combat (as opposed to in bomb demolition, or other areas where remotely controlled units are already deployed). I am all for lawyers anticipating issues caused by technological change. But before we get there, there are a host of legal issues concerning the transactions that will support the R&D that will develop this technology. With the potential sale of Boston Dynamics to Toyota, it bears noting that the immediate legal issues may have to do more with international business transactions than international humanitarian law.

Seeking the Regulatory High Ground: the International Civil Aviation Organization and Commercial Spaceflight

by Chris Borgen

In 1958, Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas D. White wrote: “For all practical purposes air and space merge, form a continuous and indivisible field of operations.” White later coined the term “aerospace” and used it in a Congressional hearing. Later it was used in policy papers to explain why the U.S. Air Force would also have the responsibility for space issues. (William Burrows, The New Ocean, 248.)

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, has just made a similar giant leap from air into space. Agence France Press reports that in a March 15 speech at the Second Annual Aerospace Symposium (there’s that word again) co-sponsored by ICAO and the UN Office on Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said:

The International Civil Aviation Organization “recognizes that sub-orbital and outer space flights will foster new tourism and transport markets, and that investments in related research and development remain at a very healthy level,”…

“Personally, as an engineer, I am very excited to see the dream and theory of normalized space flight now becoming such a tangible reality,” he told an aerospace symposium in Abu Dhabi.

In making its case, the agency noted an uptick in the number of spacecraft designs that have made the leap from concept to reality, saying more will follow.

As SpaceNews put it: ICAO is “spreading its wings into commercial spaceflight.” Thinking holistically about the continuum of air and space activities does make sense. Virgin Galactic’s space planes and SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s returnable, reusable rockets will have significant activities within the atmosphere as well as in space. And, so, we see domestic and international organizations adapting.

That adaptation is itself an interesting story. ICAO’s mandate is focused on aviation. Its vision statement is to “[a]chieve the sustainable growth of the global civil aviation system.” Even its 2014- 2016 strategic objectives make no mention on of space– or aerospace. However, Agence France Press reports that at the ICAO/ UNOOSA conference, the ICAO leadership stated that:

Rules must be put in place soon to ensure safety and security in space, as well as prevent the creation of a patchwork of regulations by individual states..

The agency suggested adapting the existing regulatory framework for aviation, for which the ICAO and national governments are responsible.

ICAO, as it stands, does not have enforcement authority. It studies,  fosters coordination and  develops policies and standards.

While there has been a focus on certain potential future space activities, such as asteroid mining, and their relation to the Outer Space Treaty, is there a need for a new treaty covering launches and activities such as space tourism? In the U.S., there seems to be a concern that too much regulation of the space tourism and orbital launch services could stifle the nascent industry. According to R&D:

Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the recently passed commercial-space competitiveness legislation from the U.S. Congress keep their distance from regulating space tourism, “as long as passengers receive explicit warnings about the hazards and the vehicles have basic safeguards,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

And so there are likely two discussions that will be taking place in the coming months. The first will concern the an institutional question: should ICAO become a norm-setter in regards to space activities? The second will address a set of regulatory issues: do we need a new treaty on aerospace activities, space tourism, and launch activities? Could consultation and coordination among national regulators be enough?

Stay tuned…

Parsing the Syrian-Russian Agreement Concerning Russia’s Deployment

by Chris Borgen

The Washington Post asks (and answers) the following:

When you are a major nuclear power and you want to make a secretive deployment to a faraway ally, what is the first thing you do? Draw up the terms, apparently, and sign a contract.

That’s what the Kremlin did with Syria in August, according to an unusual document posted this week on a Russian government website that details the terms of its aerial support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Among other revelations in the seven-page contract dated Aug. 26, 2015, the Kremlin has made an open-ended time commitment to its military deployment in Syria, and either side can terminate it with a year’s notice.

The “Agreement between the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic on deployment of an aviation group of the Russian Armed Forces on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic” is similar in purpose to status of forces agreements (SOFAs) that the U.S. signs with countries in which it has military bases. (For an overview of US SOFA practice, see this State Department document (.pdf). ) The agreement sets out issues concerning immunities, transit rights, the movement of property, and so forth.

However, every international agreement is a product of the political and strategic concerns in a particular bilateral relationship. Consequently, there can be a variety of SOFA practice even among the agreements drafted by a single country.  Concerning US practice, explains:

Status-of-forces agreements generally come in three forms. These include administrative and technical staff status under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Privileges, commonly referred to as A and T status; a “mini” status-of-forces agreement, often used for a short-term presence, such as an exercise; and a full-blown, permanent status-of-forces agreement. The appropriate arrangement is dependent upon the nature and duration of U.S. military activity within the host country, the maturity of our relationship with that country, and the prevailing political situation in the host nation.

To take one example from US practice, the 2008 Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq (the “2008 Iraq SOFA” (.pdf))  was made after the US was already in Iraq for five years; it was in part about responding to tensions between the Iraqi government and the US as well as the mechanics of withdrawal. By contrast, the Russian/Syrian agreement was made early in an intervention of undefined length and scope. responding to issues that already existed, the 2008 Iraq SOFA is twenty-four pages long, covering more topics and also with more provisions within each article. (The 2008 Iraqi SOFA is no longer in force, but I will use it as a comparator.)

By contrast, the Russian/Syrian agreement is a very brief seven pages. But, besides being quite short, the main characteristic of the agreement is that it maximizes Russian prerogatives and flexibility. Article 2 has the transfer “without charge” from Syria to Russia of  “Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province, with its infrastructure, as well as the required territory agreed upon between the parties” for the use of the Russian aviation group to be deployed in Syria.  Article 5 entitles Russia: (more…)

Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War

by Chris Borgen

Scientific American has published an article by John Wendle on how climate change has spurred the conflict in Syria. Wendle writes:

Climatologists say Syria is a grim preview of what could be in store for the larger Middle East, the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The drought, they maintain, was exacerbated by climate change. The Fertile Crescent—the birthplace of agriculture some 12,000 years ago—is drying out. Syria’s drought has destroyed crops, killed livestock and displaced as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmers. In the process, it touched off the social turmoil that burst into civil war, according to a study published in March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. A dozen farmers and former business owners like Ali with whom I recently spoke at camps for Syrian refugees say that’s exactly what happened.

He tells a story of environmental degradation, ill-conceived agricultural and water-management policies, and their effects:

“The war and the drought, they are the same thing,” says Mustafa Abdul Hamid, a 30-year-old farmer from Azaz, near Aleppo… “The start of the revolution was water and land,” Hamid says.

But the story Wendle writes is about more than Syria:

The refugee crisis will eventually subside, [Richard Seager,a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory] assumes, and the war in Syria will run its course. Nevertheless, he says, the region’s droughts will be more frequent and more severe for the foreseeable future. After closely studying dozens of climate models he and Kelley and their colleagues are convinced that continued greenhouse gas emissions will widen the Hadley cell, the band of air that envelops Earth’s tropics in a way that could further desiccate the lands of the eastern Mediterranean.

These past months many people have written about the Syrian civil war. Many have written about climate change. Wendle’s article considers both the perspectives of farmers who have become refugees and of scientists studying climate change. It is not only describes where we are, but how we got here, and what may be yet to come.

Highly recommended.

Weaponized Archaeology and Sovereignty Disputes

by Chris Borgen

Underwater archaeologist Peter B. Campbell has a very interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about how archaeological claims are being used as political weapons in sovereignty disputes. He explains:

For decades, global powers have been engaged in a race to exploit lucrative marine resources, from oil to fisheries to control of strategic waterways. But they have faced a challenge: How can a country claim new territory despite the restrictions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea? It turns out that “historical ties” to resource-rich regions can conveniently help to contravene international law.

At issue is how archaeological research is being injected into political rhetoric on issues such as claims of sovereignty in the Arctic, in the South China Sea, and over Crimea.  Campbell writes:

China’s deputy minister of culture, Li Xiaojie, put it bluntly: “Marine archaeology is an exercise that demonstrates national sovereignty.”

Russia has followed suit. In 2011, when he was prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin made headlines by retrieving two ancient ceramic jars from a shipwreck at Phanagoria, the ancient Greek city that is 10 miles from Crimea. The media cast it as a publicity stunt, but alarm bells sounded within the archaeological community. Mr. Putin’s political allies had invested $3.5 billion in research at Phanagoria, a submerged harbor with Roman-era shipwrecks. And while Phanagoria was the site of Greek colonies, Russian nationalists have adopted its ancient kings as proto-Russians.

For now, these archaeological findings are being used more as ostensible support of political rhetoric rather than as evidence, in the technical legal sense, of title.  Claims of sovereignty are most clearly based on specific treaties, such as boundary delimitation treaties, or broader treaties that set-forth rules for resolving disputes, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This does not deny that historical state practice can be a component in resolving a dispute. But there are standards for assessing such historical examples. As the Permanent Court of International Justice wrote in the Eastern Greenland case:

a claim to sovereignty based not upon some particular act or title such as a treaty of cession but merely upon continued display of authority, involves two elements each of which must be shown to exist: the intention and will to act as sovereign, and some actual exercise or display of such authority.

Another circumstance which must be taken into account by any tribunal which has to adjudicate upon a claim to sovereignty over a particular territory, is the extent to which the sovereignty is also claimed by some other Power.

The ICJ quoted this language at paragraph 134 in its Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan judgment. In the case of maritime sovereignty claims, the goal would be to turn old shipwrecks into evidence of a continued display of authority, also known as effectivite. Anneliese Guess wrote that Canada’s then-Minister of the Environment said in 2008 that, in regards to the search for shipwrecks in the Northwest Passage:

 We certainly think by establishing a long-standing presence in the Arctic that can enhance issues of sovereignty … Look at the strait (the Northwest Passage) not far from where this ship is….We think every bit of weight we can put behind our case for sovereignty is important. Adding history to that equation can only enhance that case.

While historic state practice can be important, the ICJ’s discussion in Pulau Ligitan is a good example of how difficult it can to make such a claim of effectivite. In that case, the ICJ wrote that the facts must “leave no doubt as to their specific reference to the islands in dispute as such.” (para. 136) In Pulau Ligitan, the ICJ was unmoved by many of the examples of naval activities as proof of claims of sovereignty. How much harder still, with archaeological shipwrecks from a century ago, let alone from Roman times.

Modern international law, with its focus on treaty obligations and effective dates (that draw a bright line making some historical facts less important than others) is not likely to accord much weight to  shipwrecks such as those mentioned by Campbell. (And probably no weight to some of them.) Nonetheless, politicians spin and deploy these archaeological finds in their wars of words. But in the end, as Campbell reminds us,

…archaeology rarely fits simple narratives. In fact, archaeology often demonstrates our shared human past.

A Note About Commenting on Opinio Juris

by Chris Borgen

This is a reminder to all readers and contributors concerning Opinio Juris’ policy regarding comments and posts. The “About Opinio Juris” page explains that:

We encourage civil and respectful dialogue among our bloggers, readers (who may post comments), and guest-bloggers. Our goal is to be both informative and thought-provoking by fostering vigorous intellectual engagement without vitriol. The marketplace of ideas is what we make of it.

[Emphasis added.]

Consequently, Opinio Juris maintains the right to edit or delete any comments that in our view does not meet the forum’s guidelines. This has been exceedingly rare.

One of the strengths of Opinio Juris is that our writers (both the masthead bloggers and our guest writers), commentors, and readers have a wide range of views. That breadth of perspective enriches the conversation. Please be respectful and constructive in your comments.