Editor’s Note: Yeah, I know I said this was going to be a three part series, but then I got slowed up this week. So the series will still be three parts, it’s just that part III is going to be done in two installments.
What happens if extraterrestrials slip through our solar system undetected, and are only encountered for the first time when they arrive on Earth itself?
Space law would no longer be applicable; rather, the situation would be governed by more traditional and more firmly established notions of international law. Although international/space law has not yet reached an ironclad understanding on where precisely outer space begins, for purposes of domestic laws and aeronautics regulations, the limit is most often set as the lowest point from sea level where an object can orbit the earth, i.e., 62 miles/100 kilometers up. (Objects cannot orbit for long at this altitude, due to air resistance, but they can take a few spins around the block.) Australia, in fact, has been proactive at setting the 100km boundary, and it does seem likely that it is eventually going to become the standard delineation.
So if aliens visit earth and are doing anything other than orbiting the planet, it’s good old fashion international law that’s going to provide any legal framework for the alien visitation. This means that, in practice, law will be a lot more relevant than it would be in the case of an outer space encounter.
A state’s sovereignty over its territory is one of the most fundamental concepts of international law. A state may not take action within another state’s territory absent consent. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. But although many parts of international law are often discarded or ignored, respect for a sovereign state’s territory is taken very seriously indeed.
In contrast, it would be fair to say that, in the not exactly probable event of an alien encounter in space, international law would most likely be given minimum lip service and little more. Space law is an infant body of law, and for obvious reasons, it is overloaded on the opinio juris component as compared to the state practice component. That’s a good indication that, in the event of a dramatic change in circumstances, states will not be reluctant to act in ways inconsistent with space law as it is currently understood, and instead will seek to justify their actions after-the-fact on the basis of previously “undiscovered” interpretations of law.
So, in a nutshell: international law would not survive five minutes past the first alien encounter in space.
On Earth, however, territorial sovereignty has such a deeply established normative and positive force in shaping the relationships between states that even in the event of an extraterrestrial landing, international law would continue to play a predominant role in how the world community reacted.
The exact strictures of international law to be applied, however, will depend in practice upon the location where the aliens choose to land.
Situation #1: Aliens land in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and hover out over the high seas.
This is actually the worst possible scenario, for the aliens and probably also for earth. A “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem would quickly develop, as the high seas are open to all states. This includes a freedom of navigation, a freedom of overflight, and a freedom of scientific research. Essentially, every state would be free to go to, investigate, or attempt to talk to the alien spaceship — so that if North Korea wanted to start doing some “scientific research” on the ship, it would not be a straight forward matter for any State to justify prohibiting them from doing so.
If it turns out the aliens are friendly, Earth nations would be able to repel any attempts by non-state actors to attack the spaceship, as all States possess universal jurisdiction over pirates on the high seas. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to argue that unprovoked violence directed at a spaceship is an act of piracy, entitling other nations to use force to repel any attempts by private parties to act aggressively towards the spaceship.
But attacks on the spaceship by State actors will not be so easily regulated. Under Article 95 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, “Warships on the high seas have complete immunity from the jurisdiction of any State other than the flag State.” So if it’s North Korea acting aggressively against the aliens, we’ve got a problem.
True, Article 88 of the Law of the Sea Convention does declare that “The high seas shall be reserved for peaceful purposes.” But in the words of Captain Barbossa… this is really more of what you’d call a guideline than an actual rule. It doesn’t actually prohibit military actions, per se. It is international law of war, not the law of the sea, that would be the primary body of law to govern hostilities on the high seas. Although under international law, the threat or use of force is traditionally prohibited, it does not, technically speaking, prohibit the use of force against aliens.
Article 2:4 of the UN Charter declares, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” An alien spaceship does not obviously possess territorial integrity or political independence as a state, or at least not so clearly that North Korea couldn’t make a facially legitimate claim that Article 2:4 doesn’t apply to them. So the aliens would be fair game.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re defenseless, under international law. The right of self-defense is preserved in the UN Charter, and self-defense does extend to defense of others (I’ll assume for now aliens could qualify as part of the “collective” in Article 51) but in the chaos of an international free-for-all on the high seas, this would be of little practical protection. Besides, it’s not exactly settled law, regarding what acts a State can take against an extraterrestrial in the high seas before third party rights of self-defense kick in.
End result? The Law of the Sea isn’t going to be sufficient to protect or regulate any alien encounters on the high seas. If we’re lucky, however, the UN Security Council will be able to reach some kind of agreement and enable collective action to be taken. Under Article 42 of the UN charter, a blockade is one of the actions the Security Council can authorize to restore peace and international order. Although “blockades” are traditionally understood to apply to coastal navigation, it is not a heavy abuse of the language to say Article 42 would permit the Security Council to establish a blockade in the high seas. In this manner, the Security Council could authorize the use of force to protect the alien ship and to impose order on the normally unregulated oceans.
Previously: The Law of Aliens, Part I: The Law of Post-Atmospheric Extraterrestrial Encounters By National or International Organizations, and Part II — The Law of Outer Space Encounters With Extraterrestrials by Sub-State Entities.