Keywords: Article VI – Outer Space Treaty – Private Entities – State Responsibility –Ultra Vires
Outer space has always fascinated humanity, which continues to be so in the current day. Private entities are looking to outer space as never before with tourism flights(1), space resources extraction,(2) and even space beer.(3) As most of these activities are done in the interest of the private entities instead of the international community as a whole, debate on private activities in space has attained significance. Is space tourism just rich people playing around and destroying the environment?(4) Whether resource extraction on the moon is in conflict with the Outer Space Treaty?(5) These are just a few of the questions that have arisen in this context.
No matter what side one is on in this relevant debate, a fundamental and older question is; to what degree a state is responsible for the acts of private entities?
Outer Space Treaty
Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty(6) by the first look answers this question when it states that, state parties shall bear international responsibility for national activities, no matter whether it is being done by a state organ or by a private entity. It also points out that the state must authorize and supervise the activities of private players.
Article VI is quite a deviation from the normal customary rules of international law for state responsibility, which is found crystallized in the Articles on State Responsibility(7). Under the rules of the Articles on State Responsibility a state will be responsible for internationally wrongful acts if a conduct consists of an action or omission that is both attributable to the state, and is in conflict with an international obligation of the state.(8) If the act is conducted by a private entity, certain criteria must be fulfilled for the act to be attributable to the state.(9) The criteria vary but there must be some sort of connection between the state and the wrongful act of the private entity like the state authorizing or instructing a private entity to do such an act or the state acknowledging such an act as its own.
Attributability in the Articles on State Responsibility operates as a lower limit for fixing responsibility on any state. Private entities engaging in theft, murder or other offenses would face individual responsibility and state wouldn’t be responsible unless the action can be said to be under the authorization or instruction from the state (and thus attributable). When Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty attributes every activity in outer space to the state, the question would arise on the responsibility of states under the Outer Space Treaty for every tort or a crime committed by the private space entities.
Responsible for what?
Some scholars have pointed out that it can be claimed that the duty of the state can be confined to authorization and supervision.(10) Other scholars are arguing that Article VI attributes all actions, and thus responsibility for every action of a private entity is on the state.(11)
While discussing authorization for the actions by the private players, it has been argued that there has to be a lower limit so that an astronaut needing to brush his teeth does not require to ask the national authorization agency for permission.(12) The same can be said for what actions can be attributed to the state. Bin Cheng discussed that the responsibility could have a wide and a narrow interpretation. The narrow interpretation being that the state is responsible for its normal obligations under international law and would also be responsible for actions by private entities as if they were made by a state agency. The wide interpretation would be that the state is responsible for all actions of private entities.(13)
However, even the narrow interpretation of Bin Cheng still offers a broad range of activities that the state may be responsible for. Thus, a heavy burden of responsibility is imposed on the state, which seems to be undesirable. Also the requisite clarity on the authorization and responsibility of the state for private actions is found missing in these arguments.
Article VI does specifically mention that the actions must be in conformity with the Outer Space Treaty, and thus, it does seem obvious that at least any action in conflict with the Treaty would call upon responsibility. A follow-up question could then be: Is the state responsibility limited to authorization and supervision of private entities or does it stretch beyond to cover the breach committed by private entities? This matters in the situation where a state implements laws regulating private entities in outer space, and only authorizes activity in space in conformity with the Outer Space Treaty. If the private entity then goes against the authorization and commits a breach of the Outer Space Treaty, concerns would arise in fixing responsibility as it is unclear whether the state is directly responsible for the breach or for not preventing the breach by the private entity.
Article VI is famously a compromise between the ideology of the USA and the Soviet Union, where one party wanted free access to space for private entities, and the other wanted to only allow the states to carryon activities in outer space.(14) So it is probably safe to say that the intention was to ensure that the states took the activities of private entities in outer space serious, and that they therefore were directly responsible for the action. However, under the changed circumstances arising out of the increased private space activities, it stands as a problematic proposition.
Application of Public International Law
Article III of the Outer Space Treaty states that all space activities must be in conformity with the public international law. Many states have applied this in their authorization process stating that the activity must not conflict with their international obligations.(15) Sensible as it may be that international law applies to space; however, this is where we find the aggravation of the problem. Many criminal activities performed by private entities may fall within the ambit of breach of international law upon attribution to the state.
Many different situations could arise. Would every possible murder on the moon be classified as a state assassination? Would theft in a space hotel be attributed to the state? If this would be the primary interpretation of Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, most states would probably halt private entities from going into outer space. Such a harsh interpretation would confine the humanity to Earth, which is unwise from any perspective.
What then would be the minimum threshold for attributing private activities to the state? The Draft Articles on State Responsibility does contain the concept of “Ultra Vires”.(16) When a state agent or organ exceeds authority, the state shall still be held responsible for the actions, if the agent acts in the capacity it has been appointed. So, if an agent has been empowered to exercise governmental authority, the state has responsibility, unless it is clearly outside the function the agent is entrusted. This is of course not directly applicable to the situation at hand as we are dealing with private entities. The essence of the principle could however be used. When an authorized private entity performs activities in outer space, it can be said to wield some kind of state authority, and all of its actions under authorization can be attributed to the state.
It could then be said that if the private entity acts outside the scope of the authorization it should be examined if the entity at least still acted within the capacity of the authorization. This should at least sort out many of the actions done entirely in a private capacity, like for example, murder, theft, extortion etc. Whereas the actions in violation of essential principles of the space treaties, for example, an action contrary to the non-appropriation principle, using nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction, contaminating the outer space and celestial bodies and such, would trust responsibility upon the state. Thus, the use of the principle of Ultra Vires would ensure a much needed balance in the application of responsibility norms for private space activities.
* Ph.D. Fellow, Legal Institute, University of Southern Denmark.
(1) Space.com, ‘Space Tourism’ available at
<https://www.space.com/topics/space-tourism> last visited 28 November 2021.
(2) Mike Wall, ‘Trump signs executive order to support moon mining, tap asteroid resources’, available at
<https://www.space.com/trump-moon-mining-space-resources-executive-order.html> last visited 28 November 2021.
(3) Hanneke Weitering, ‘Space beer, anyone? Hops flying on SpaceX’s private astronaut mission Inspiration4 will be auctioned for charity’, available at
<https://www.space.com/inspiration4-space-beer-hops-auction> last visited 28 November 2021.
(4) Tereza Pultarova, ‘The rise of space tourism could affect Earth’s climate in unforeseen ways, scientists worry’, available at
<https://www.space.com/environmental-impact-space-tourism-flights> last visited 28 November 2021.
(5) Brooks Hays, ‘New U.S. space mining law may violate international treaty’, available at
<https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2015/11/27/New-US-space-mining-law-may-violate-international-treaty/8751448634436/> last visited 28 November 2021.
(6) The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty)
(7) Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ASR), 2001.
(8)ASR, Art. 1
(9) ASR, Art. 8 – 11
(10) The Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law, ‘Outer Space, Liability for Damage’, Pedrazzi, Marco, 2008, Para 2.
(11) For example, Ibid, Francis Lyall & Paul B. Larsen, Space Law: A Treatise (Burlington: Ashgate Pub. Limited, 2009) p. 60.
(12) Testimony of Laura Montgomery Ground Based Space Matters Before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, Reopening the American Frontier: Exploring How the Outer Space Treaty Will Impact American Commerce and Settlement in Space. May 23, 2017, Russell Senate Office Building. p. 5.
(13) Bin Cheng, Studies in international space law (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997) pp. 633 & 634.
(14) Frans G. Von der Dunk, National Space Legislation in Europe: Issues of Authorisation of Private Space Activities in the Light of Developments in European Space Cooperation (Netherlands: Brill, 2011) p. 3.
(15) Stephan Hobe et al., Cologne Commentary on Space Law – Outer Space Treaty: КёльнскийКомментарийККосмическомуПраву – ДоговорПоКосмосу (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2017) p. 417.
(16) ASR Art. 7.