Unusual Interface: Space Law and WTO

By Hansa Sinha

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Image courtesy: NASA free images

It often escapes us that trade law and space law have a very important interface. The interface lies in the fact that satellites sent into outer space by various countries are gaining an increased importance. Although, we do not have a dedicated agreement of set of rules under WTO for space law, agreements such as Agreement on Technical barriers to Trade (TBT), intellectual property rights (TRIPS), public procurement (GPA) and trade in services (GATS) provide an important reference point.

If the space contours had continued to be controlled by USA and EU only, one could simply rely on bilateral relations. However many countries are showing interest and therefore deserve the aegis of a multilateral regime such as the WTO. Space law has come out of the hold of respective governments and is spreading and flapping its commercialization wings. This can lead to increasing influence of WTO in specific sectors such as satellite navigation and radio communication sector. In fact satellite communication has been the most commercial use of outer space till date. Since the satellites help the respective countries in various sectors like weather, agriculture, natural disasters etc, it has increasingly become an important issue and a viable global business. It has a lot of economic importance and is integrated with sectors such as telecommunications, media etc. This in turn subjects it to diversified regulation as well.

The developments with regard to GMPCS i.e. Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite are important here. It is a system which utilizes a constellation of satellites to provide telecommunication services directly to end users. For eg two way voice, fax, messaging, data and broadband multimedia can be included in this. This sector saw increasing private systems. The global markets for GMPCS were in fact opened up by WTO GATS agreement. It is another matter that GMPCS later witnessed a string of failures.

As far as space law disputes are concerned, the liability convention (one of most important treaty in the corpus juris spatialis) provides a limited approach. One may then think of resorting to Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) Rules on Outer Space Disputes. WTO with its Dispute Settlement Body then becomes an important solution for resolving space law disputes. Critics however argue that WTO is very focused on trade and commercial aspects and may overlook the required expertise in other areas such as politico-security, technical and operations.

Another very prominent role of WTO in the space law is evidenced by the expansion of Chinese Telecommunications market, The Telecommunications services were the first sector of space application industry that was liberalized under WTO. This trickled down as benefits to final users and service providers. It is widely perceived that post WTO membership, the Chinese Telecommunications market was liberalized to a great extent. Thus this can be said to be one of many examples of vital contributions of this interface. Read more here about the Chinese Space Law.

The world has become a smaller place. There are disputes on the matter of where air ends and where outer space begins. The humongous dispute of large civil aircraft involving the two giants Boeing and Airbus has already been reckoned as the biggest trade dispute handled by WTO. Thus, foraying into the intersections and overlapping sections of WTO and Space law is indispensable.

Read more here and here

Thank you for reading and a very happy new year!

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