Have you ever thought about it? For as long as man has lived, there have always been exploration and conquests. Each state wants to expand, every leader wants to acquire more territory and establish his or her leadership as a super power. Think of Alexander the great, he established for himself the largest known empire and would have conquered the whole world had he gotten the chance and the resources. In addition, there is the history of The Americas; the new world discovered by Christopher Columbus, this was quickly taken over by Britain, the red Indians’ resistance notwithstanding.
Perhaps the most organized and widespread period of conquest would be the European scramble for Africa. After much exploration and the discovery of the richness of the land in terms of the resources, every European country that had anything to its name wanted in. They would have gone to war had they been unable to divide the continent among themselves peacefully as they did eventually. These ‘new’ territories were immediately afterwards effectively claimed and occupied.
So what about the moon?
The process does not appear that much different from that in the scramble for Africa. It began with exploration. We are all aware of the epic space race between the USA and Russia. First, it was who would be able to get the first artificial satellite into space, then who would get the first human into space and finally who would land the first human on the moon.
When all this was done, the United Nations, probably having learnt from history and in an attempt to avoid a scramble for the helium rich moon passed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which was ratified, by over 100 countries. It stated that space is the “province of all mankind” and is not subject to claims on sovereignty by states.
Well not quite, in 1980, Richard Hope registered his claim to the moon with the UN. When his claim went unanswered, he assumed that meant his rights were secured. He went ahead to start a business, the Lunar Embassy Commission, where he sells property on the moon. In his defense, he stated that the 1967 treaty had a loophole. It prohibited countries from claiming ownership of property in space, but he filed his claim of ownership as an individual.
A separate treaty, the 1979 Moon Agreement that came into force in 1984 prohibits private ownership of extra-terrestrial estate. It would have done the job of ensuring such claims as made by Hope were made out rightly illegal, but the problem is the treaty had only been ratified by 13 countries by 2008, none of them being among the major space explorers, thus has little legal significance.
What is a legal loophole?
A legal loophole can be defined as an ambiguity or omission in a law or legal document, which can be manipulated to evade its intent without technically breaking the law. Loopholes occur because it is not possible for the lawmakers to pre-empt every possible future situation and some areas may thus be left uncovered. Whenever this happens, law reforms are usually made to cover the loophole.
So is there a loophole really?
No. The United Nations did not answer Hope’s claim because it did not have to. The 1967 treaty clearly made his claim illegal. The treaty should be read to mean that it forbids governments and their private individuals from claiming ownership of extra-terrestrial territory. No one can legally own the moon; neither can a person claim ownership of any other thing in space for that matter.
The spirit of the law must be taken into consideration and not just its wording only, and it is clear that at the time of passing the law, the intention was to have the moon preserved as the heritage of all people, and not just the estate of a country or an individual.
Further, most countries have corollaries in their real estate and property laws to the effect that it is not sufficient for one to claim ownership of a territory, but they also need to be able to demonstrate their intent and capability to occupy that territory. This provision is usually made to prevent wanton claiming of unoccupied land by people. Therefore, unless our ambitious Mr. Hope can demonstrate his capability and intent to occupy the moon, he should know that the title deeds he is handing out to the moon are nothing but sentimental pieces of paper.