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Who owns the Moon?

31 July 2012, 20:00

Hundreds of years ago, land mass was appropriated to whoever got there first. Columbus claimed America for Spain initially, clearing the path for the colonization to follow.

Van Riebeeck followed suit in South Africa, and the British the rest of the world. At the risk of having some people missing the point from here on end, let’s just move on to the general definition of colonization...

Colonialism is the establishment, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a process whereby the metropole claims sovereignty over the colony, and the social structure, government, and economics of the colony are changed by colonizers from the metropole.

Basically this means that whoever asserts control over a territory, is the boss, and by definition the owner. This view is of course highly controversial, especially across Africa where Europe established their foothold centuries ago, mostly at the cost of the natives.

Now, back to the big question... who then owns the Moon?

The United States is the only country who could stake a claim on the Moon, as they were the only ones to establish a human presence there. The planting of the American flags on the Moon, normally also serves as a claim to superiority on that territory, and by a very narrow definition manages to technically leave incumbent rule of the Moon, in terms of laws governing what happens there, to... America.

But does that pre suppose ownership?

One of the reasons I say this, is due to the jurisdiction the Moon was appropriated with during the only times humans have set foot on it.

Say for instance that Neil Armstrong was murdered on the lunar surface by Buzz Aldrin, because he wanted to set foot on the Moon first, then Aldrin would have been tried for murder in the U.S, in accordance with U.S laws.

Normally, had this happened in France, then the U.S wouldn’t have had jurisdiction to hear the matter, due to France being a sovereign state, and thus no crime was committed on American soil.

Basic stuff to comprehend...      

By implication then, the Moon was ruled under U.S law, the last time it was ruled under human laws.

Under international law, a previously undiscovered island in international waters could be subject to ownership claims of whoever sets foot there first (given that there were no locals).

The one overruling factor to the standard above is Article 6 of the 1967 U.N Outer Space Treaty (the Outer Space Treaty), which specifies that space, as well as lunar bodies, including the moon is no single state’s property. The international community thus accepts joint responsibility for space, lunar bodies and the moon.

One cautionary comment though; treaties aren’t worth the paper they are written on, if the country that signs it doesn’t ratify the treaty in its own legislation.

This means that any country that develops a space programme, which is not part of the Outer Space Treaty, or did not ratify it in legislation, can technically claim the moon by populating it.

Enter Dennis Hope, the most cunning of estate agents the world has ever seen, and the person that claimed the Moon for himself, actually selling one acre stands on it.

Hope established the Lunar Embassy as a body to sell these properties after he filed for ownership in 1980, although the international community aswell as the U.S government always denied he had the right to do so.

Various other companies and individuals attempted, and to this very day still attempt, to find ways to lay private claim to the Moon.

Thus far, Hope and all the other individuals failed miserably in their endeavours... although most of them got to be on TV at some point!

The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Moon Treaty) renders all celestial bodies to the international community, and effectively replaces the Outer Space Treaty.

The big downside to this is the fact that none of the space faring nations ratified the treaty into legislation, and all indications are that they won’t do so.

This means that the space race is very much alive, as the Moon Treaty basically states that celestial bodies, even though occupied by a specific country, should be developed for the interests of the ‘international community’ i.e, the world.

The only reason you wouldn’t ratify this treaty is if you plan to occupy celestial territories for own gain, bringing us back to square one in terms of ownership of the Moon.

Now, a distinction needs to be made between ownership, and occupation.

If no one owns the Moon, then by implication everyone owns the Moon. However, occupation of everyone’s Moon is all space faring nations are interested in.

Allow me to explain...

Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, gave South Africa administration rights over Namibia after the First World War (It having been a German colony at that stage), and in effect total control.

Namibia never belonged to South Africa, but was commonly regarded as a fifth province by the latter.

The same principle would apply to celestial bodies such as moons and planets, where space faring nations would only be interested in controlling the territories, without having to physically own them.

It is for this reason that no-one wants to ratify the Moon Treaty, as the words “...to the benefit of the international community...” included in the treaty, is unacceptable to those with the technology to actually get there.

So, the bottom line is that ownership is overrated, and would the effort involved in actually owning the Moon, or Mars for that matter just be far too much of an unnecessary hassle.

The reasoning countries like the U.S, China, Russia, India and the European Space Administration have is that administration is enough to enforce their will on the Moon or Mars. They aren’t looking for ownership, and by doing this remains a step ahead of world opinion.

So, if you bought a nice quaint little stand on the Moon recently, then have a closer look at the ‘title deed’ you securely locked in your safe.

Most of them will bear the words ‘novelty’ disclaiming any legal liability towards the seller, and rendering the piece of space-property as nothing more than something to frame and hang by your sleeper bar, next to the Richelieu dispenser for everyone to see.

All of this does seem quite unattached to what is going on in the world at the moment, but it sure puts the motivation behind the fact that India and China are pushing their budgets for better space programs in a different light.

Imagine the military possibilities of a Moon station, operated exclusively by one state... vast empty spaces to do what you like, with nobody being the wiser.

Kind of puts a different twist on why anyone would want control over a grey bowl of dust... doesn’t it?

Colonization could be defined quite differently in the future I would think, possibly to the inclusion of the words “...territory or celestial body...” possibly taking territorial conflict and disputes to outer space.

Can you imagine a suicide bomber spreading himself all over the place due to a land dispute on Mars?

Farfetched? Maybe.

Impossible...certainly not.

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