Earlier this month we have received a very interesting question on Twitter: ”Who will be responsible if an escape vessel hits space debris and civilian people die?”.
Our colleague, Alexander Soucek, from the Legal Services Departement at ESA gives us the following answer.
This scenario is apocalyptic, but let us analyse it calmly and through the eyes of the last lawyer who remained on the surface of Earth: first, this lawyer will want to clarify the terminology used by @sparklefingered (Update: @sparklefingered is now @Winterbynes).
“Responsibility” in international law describes the attribution of breaches of legal obligations. In other words: States are responsible for breaching any international legal obligation they have. In the dramatic escape case at hand, the question would therefore rather relate to “liability”, i.e. the obligation to settle damages.
First lesson learned: even when the planet perishes, the use of correct language is key.
Second, the last lawyer on Earth will analyse the chaos in orbit by applying international space law: for damages occurring in outer space, States (and some international organisations) are liable only if they are at fault – without the proof of fault, no liability. From today’s perspective, there is even no legally binding obligation to mitigate space debris, although there are several non-legally binding guidelines that are increasingly applied and followed.
The result of crashing into space debris during humankind’s dramatic escape from Earth could thus well be: no one is responsible (no breach of an international legal obligation) and no one is liable (no faulty behaviour).
Admittedly, this result seems disappointing – but in all likelihood it would be the last thing to complain about in that very moment.