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date: 22 January 2019

Registration Convention

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The adoption and entering into force of the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (Registration Convention) was an achievement in expanding and strengthening corpus iuris spatialis. It was the fourth treaty negotiated by the member states of the United Nations Committee for Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS), and it represents lex specialis of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), elaborating further Article VIII OST. Article VIII OST had already implied registration, and consequences thereof for exercising jurisdiction and control over a registered space object. However, it was the Registration Convention that specified the necessary practical steps to register such objects.

The Registration Convention contributes to the promotion of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes as it reduces the possibility of the existence of unidentified space objects and lowers the risk of putting weapons of mass destruction secretly into orbit. Notwithstanding the prevailing purposes of the Registration Convention, the negotiation history of the Convention and its “medium-high” number of ratifications testify to the numerous challenges that surround registration. The mandatory marking of space objects was one of the most heated points of debate between member states during the drafting of the Convention in the 1970s. Member states had conflicting views, depending on if they were launching states or were states that were potential victims of launches. Questions regarding whether there should be one central or several registers and whether the type of information to be registered should be obligatory or optional were also pivotal to the discussion. It took five years of negotiation for member states to reach compromises and to adopt the Registration Convention, containing 12 articles. The articles covered issues ranging from registration procedure and different registries to amendments and withdrawal from the Convention. In addition, the following novelties were introduced: the term state of registry was used; the “Moscow formula” was abandoned, as the depositary to the UN was moved, thereby diminishing the veto power of the governments of depositary; and the “in five years review” clause found in Article X underlined the significance of technological development to the provisions.

Despite the Convention’s novelties and its objective to protect the attribution of jurisdiction on the basis of a registry, as well as to ensure the rights provided in the Liability Convention and the Rescue and Return Agreement by offering means to identify space objects, the articles dealing with joint launch registration and registration by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are seen as undermining jurisdiction and control. Because the elements of jurisdiction and control can be freely separated from registration between joint launching states and because, in the case of an IGO, the IGO does not have the sovereign authority to exercise jurisdiction and control, the Convention leaves important areas unregulated. There have been proposals to expand the Registration Convention to encompass other subject matters such as financial interests of assets in outer space; however, as of the early 21st century, these issues remain regulated only by the UNIDROIT Space Assets Protocol.