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Law of the Sea, Space, and Armed Conflict: Michael Walker

The oceans and outer space are critical to human prosperity and the welfare of nations, being highways for commerce and information.

However, they are also a shared resource and a vector for threats to security. As such, in these domains, nations and their militaries are guided by a body of customary international law in both times of peace and war. The long-held principle of “freedom of the seas” is codified in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which has been ratified by 167 countries. It establishes guidelines for coastal and maritime boundaries, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.

However, the establishment of the UNCLOS parameters has also created overlapping and excessive maritime claims, especially in semi-enclosed seas like the South China Sea, putting the territorial integrity of nations in question. The 1966 Outer Space Treaty, endorsed by 125 countries, forms the basis of international space law, establishing freedom of exploration and use of space by all nations, prohibiting claims of national sovereignty, and banning the placement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies.

Furthermore, the 2006 United Nations Space Preservation Treaty establishes a moratorium against all space weapons. However, reconnaissance and communications satellites, as well as global positioning systems, form the basis of modern network-centric warfare. Furthermore, the recent development of hypersonic and anti-satellite weapons, as well as sub-orbital ballistic missiles, will put these treaties to the test.

This talk outlines the basic principles of the Law of the Sea and Space Law, and apply them to contemporary case studies of NATO’s “freedom of navigation” operations as well as the strategic implications of modern space weapons.

Presented atChurchill College, 20 February 2019.


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