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  • Jagrit Verma

Space Debris, Environmental Justice, and The Unsolved Puzzles Of Human Rights

This article is authored by Jagrit Verma who is in the 5th year in the B.A. L.L.B Course at the Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla.


"The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself."

-        Carl Sagan

Ad astra, beyond the stars, a world that was once pristine and untouched, filled with possibilities has now been intervened with the one major threat to nature- humanity. As the ambit of human exploration has surpassed the terrestrial boundaries, the floating wastes (including nuclear wastes) that accompany said exploration and the lack of  accountability from nations that are littering in space creates a grave question of environmental justice gnawing at us earthly beings.

Environmental justice has been defined as distributive justice or equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits which revolves around ensuring fairness in the distribution of environmental resources and safeguarding communities from the adverse impacts of environmental degradation.

Environmental jurisprudence has regularly seen differences arising out of the concerns of the global north and global south; they keep locking horns on common but differentiated responsibility, compromising on the very fundamental aspect of environmental justice.

However, a new (yet not so new) concern has evolved with the proliferation of space debris. It is not only restricting the access to space but also disrupting fundamental human rights of the citizens of earth. The issue transcends borders, in fact, the entirety of the planet and requires immediate attention.

This article attempts to understand the concerns with respect to environmental injustice and human rights as caused by the uncontrolled space debris and analyses the sufficiency of existing treaty framework to address these concerns, offering solutions to the lapses that exist in international law.

Space Debris as an Impediment to Environmental Justice

National Concerns

The exploration of space has been a political tool to assert authority with respect to one’s political position in world politics. In light of that, events such as the Space Race have led to the relentless release of objects into the outer space causing overcrowding and preventing the access of others in that realm.

Developing nations that are now joining the space exploration are hesitant or unable to send their satellites and other space objects due to the overcrowding and the potential of collisions and damage. It is no surprise that Russia, USA, and Japan lie at the top of the list with the maximum number of items floating as space debris. As a matter of fact, estimates suggest that 128 million pieces of debris smaller than one centimetre and over 9,34,000 pieces of debris larger than that were floating in the space in January 2019 and the number is only increasing.

This, in turn is causing an issue with the distribution of the benefits that can be derived from access to outer space- communication, navigation, and disaster management, inter alia. This causes the glaring gap in the achievement of environmental justice. Nations are not getting access into the celestial realm due to the immense space occupied by the existing space debris which is creating global inequalities in space exploration capabilities.

Human Rights Concerns for Communities and Individuals

At a more microscopic level, the access to space also leaves implications on the rights of communities and individuals. Think about a small, remote hamlet in the lap of the Himalayas, which relies heavily on satellite services for communication, navigation, and determining the weather or a community in the far north-east that relies only on radio communication for information due to lack of internet services.

The fact that nations are unable to reach the space or are at elevated risk of damaging the objects sent to space leaves an effect on vulnerable communities, in context of their access to essential services, which in turn hampers their basic human rights- information, education, livelihood etc.

Apart from our daily means of communication including telephones, messaging, social media, and internet in general, the world is increasingly getting reliant on real-time data for disaster management, agricultural planning including precision agriculture, and global communication, the hindrance caused by space debris amplifies existing inequalities, increasing environmental injustice.

Moreover, today, digital connectivity has become synonymous with access to education, employment, and participation in the global economy and most of the digital connectivity is supported by objects in space. Considering that, space debris becomes an obstacle to the realising these human rights.

It is, thus, no surprise that collisions in outer space with existing objects have the potential of not only disrupting traditional but also emerging technologies, furthering the digital divide that already plagues the global north and global south. This divide further impedes the ability of communities to adapt to several challenges, exacerbating existing social and economic disparities.

This comes with the obvious threat of general pollution that humanity is putting out into the exosphere without thinking about the concerns of property damage, safety, and right to life of space explorers apart from the obstacles mentioned above. It becomes even more imperative in the light of these concerns to have a proper framework to safeguard human rights that are at a potential and existing threat due to unaccounted space debris.

Analysing the Existing Treaty Framework

When we speak of environmental justice, it is nothing but an extension of human rights principles, calling for equitable access to environmental benefits and the mitigation of environmental burdens. It is certain that while the human rights treaty framework is elaborate, extensive, and covers various facets, it only caters to the very needs of earth-related human rights concerns. The issue with the existing framework is that beyond its fundamental principles, it does not directly govern the concerns prevailing in outer space.

The cornerstone of the international human rights treaty framework lies in the recognition that every individual is entitled to live in a healthy environment. Treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) affirm the right to life, health, and an adequate standard of living, all of which are intrinsically linked to environmental conditions. These two treaties are also crucial in the light of the enforcement mechanism that is supplied thereunder. Again, however, there is no direct mention of their application to outer space, but by extension of jurisprudence, the aforementioned rights do have a bearing on any human, by virtue of being human, regardless of whether it is on earth or in space. Thus, they create a guiding framework.

The right to a safe and healthy environment as a human right contemplated under Article 12 of the ICESCR or the adoption thereof through a UN Resolution show that they are based fundamentally on the prevention of human activities responsible for environmental concerns. Therefore, by virtue of interpretation can also extend to proliferation of space debris caused due to human activity.

Moreover, other rights such as right to information and right to education have been contemplated under Articles 19 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which of course cannot have a limited scope (beyond what is given in the treaty itself).

Unfortunately, treaties related to outer space do not contemplate the human right concerns or the environmental injustice caused by space debris. The last space related treaty to come into existence was the Moon Agreement of 1979 after which the world has been in deep slumber to come up with a solution to the contemporary concerns of outer space.

However, efforts to establish such a framework have begun within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The working group of the COPUOS has considered the issue of space debris extensively in its 2010 Resolution and the UN has also provided for mitigation guidelines, both of which emphasise on the control and limitation on the release of debris during the usual space operations especially in context of intentional destruction and accidental breakdowns. These are derived from the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) Guidelines. However, again, these are very rudimentary measures that only scratch the surface of the much larger, overarching issue of human rights. While it does come from an environmental justice perspective, the way to incorporate these measures into a human rights framework still require time and work.

The incorporation of environmental justice principles into guidelines for space activities, debris mitigation measures, and the development of space sustainability standards are some steps suggested toward aligning outer space laws with the principles of international human rights treaties.

Conclusion, Suggestions, and the Way Forward

The abovementioned segments have extensively argued how the issue of space debris is posing challenges to environmental justice and human rights, a correlation of which has been ignored by many scholars, international organisations, and legislatures alike. To address these challenges, it becomes imperative to integrate environmental justice principles into the governance of outer space and create a framework that acts as the melting pot of the three concerns- environment, human rights, and space law.

This includes the development of international agreements that not only regulate space activities but also ensure equitable access to the benefits of outer space. It is the need of the hour to create a harmonious intersection of environmental justice and human rights in outer space that is derived from the commitment to responsible space practices, collaborative debris mitigation efforts, and the creation of legal frameworks, including binding treaties, which prioritise fairness and inclusivity in the exploration of the celestial world.

To bridge this gap, a much more nuanced approach is needed. The development of a space-specific legal framework that integrates the aforementioned principles is essential. This framework must encompass the responsible use of outer space, reducing the disparity in access to space resources, and preventing activities such as uncontrolled generation of space debris which leads to the exacerbation of environmental injustice.

It is, of course, a mammoth task but the first steps have been taken towards it. After all, the world did come together when we wished to regulate the sea, the air, the forests, and the land. It is high time that it comes together to regulate the outer space as well. With humanity’s footprints on the moon, it is necessary that we do not create the ethos of unsustainability and disparity in outer space, the same way we have done on Earth.

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