Draft Moon Village Association Principles: creating best practices for sustainable lunar activities

The draft principles are intended to help develop best practices for future lunar development. (credit: NASA)

On March 6, the Moon Village Association unveiled a set of 15 draft Moon Village Association (MVA) Principles intended to help facilitate the peaceful settlement of the Moon by establishing best practices for the long-term sustainability of lunar and cislunar activity. The MVA Principles are now published on the MVA website and are open for public comment. The announcement by the president of the MVA, Dr. Giuseppe Reibaldi, took place during a day-long symposium on Returning to the Moon: Legal Challenges as Humanity Begins to Settle the Solar System hosted by the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law (see “Hard law or soft law? The debate about the future of space law”, The Space Review, April 13, 2020).

As discussed further below, all stakeholders, including members of the general public, are invited to submit their comments on the principles through the MVA website. The purpose of this article is to answer some basic questions about the nature of the MVA Principles and to provide a concise summary of the principles to acquaint readers with their scope.

What is the Moon Village Association? The concept of the “Moon Village” is a vision of peaceful global cooperation in lunar exploration and utilization. The concept contemplates a collection of international efforts that involve both governmental and non-governmental (i.e. private) entities conducting activities in a spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance. Everyone is free to contribute to humanity’s future on the Moon in accordance with their individual capabilities. The Moon Village Association (www.moonvillageassociation.org) was incorporated in Vienna in 2017 with the goal of implementing the Moon Village concept by serving as a hub of communication for stakeholders in the new international push to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon. At the core of the MVA is an extensive network of professionals and institutions from more than 40 countries. They are all connected by a dedication to making progress on the legal, technical, and ethical issues that face the early settlers of the Moon. At the same time, members of the general public make up a significant portion of the organization’s membership. The MVA is also member of IAF and has been granted observer status at the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

What are the MVA Principles? The MVA Principles include both the core legal principles that will guide human activity on the Moon as well as provisions that encourage the creation of best practices to address the practical challenges of establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon. The principles were drafted by the members of the MVA’s Coordination & Cooperation Committee and draw on existing legal instruments and initiatives, including the existing space treaties, the UN Long-Term Sustainability Guidelines, and the Hague International Working Group’s “Building Blocks” for an international framework for space resource activity.

Why are the Moon Village Principles important? Many stakeholders, including both government agencies and private industry, have Moon-related projects. To date, these projects have been carried out in line with the existing space treaties. However, these treaties fall short of the rules that will need to be in place when conducting lunar activities. Two examples include need to harmonize interfaces to enable the interoperability of lunar habitats and other equipment and the need to develop a registry of land use on the Moon. The MVA Principles, when supported by major stakeholders, will allow for an increase of cooperation and, perhaps more importantly, the avoidance of possible conflicts.

To whom do the principles apply? The MVA Principles are intended to apply to anyone conducting activities on the Moon or in cislunar space, whether such entity is governmental or nongovernmental in nature. Of course, this distinguishes the MVA Principles from the space treaties that impose obligations solely on the states that are party to the treaty (while any obligations on private entities spring solely from domestic implementing legislation.)

Are the principles binding law? No. The MVA Principles are purely voluntary in nature. Although the principles could, in time, influence the creation of a new international treaty, Realpolitik makes a treaty at this point in time a practical impossibility. Even successful treaties can take a decade to draft and another decade to receive sufficient signatures to enter into force. In light of these realities, the Moon Village Association decided to adopt a “bottom-up” approach that seeks the voluntary adoption of MVA Principles by stakeholders, whether such stakeholders are government space agencies, private companies, or other entities. Despite not having the binding power of hard law, the principles are nevertheless intended to set practical goals and provide helpful guidance in the conduct of lunar activities.

The overarching goal of the principles is to develop a set of best practices that will ensure the long-term sustainability of lunar activities. By achieving a voluntary consensus among government agencies and private industry, best practices will emerge and could eventually influence the drafting of hard law, or even achieve the hallowed status of binding customary international law. Another option would be for the principles to inspire a patchwork of binding domestic laws that would, in their combined effect, approximate the binding effect of a treaty. Of course, some aspects of the principles are already codified in international law, such as the duty to exercise due regard with respect to the interests of other parties.

What issues do the principles address? We encourage our readers to read the principles in their entirety. That said, here is a list of the topics addressed in the principles:

  • Principle 1: Compliance with international law
  • Principle 2: Benefit-sharing and interest-balancing
  • Principle 3: Governance
  • Principle 4: Long-term sustainability of lunar activities
  • Principle 5: Private lunar activities
  • Principle 6: Scientific study of the Moon and cislunar space
  • Principle 7: Information sharing
  • Principle 8: Avoiding harmful activity
  • Principles 9 & 10: Land use registry
  • Principle 11: Public database for sharing scientific information and best practices
  • Principle 12: Future legal initiatives
  • Principle 13: Ethics
  • Principle 14: Dispute resolution
  • Principle 15: Monitoring and further development of the Principles

What is the “land use registry” called for in Principles 9 and 10? The extraction of natural resources from celestial bodies is indispensable to the establishment a permanent human presence on the Moon. If the Moon ever hosts a significant population, the prospect of delivering oxygen, water, fuel, and construction materials to the Moon from Earth would be prohibitively expensive. Better to harvest water ice from the surface of the Moon. But, is the mining of natural resources on the Moon legal? (The answer is yes.) Can a private company stake a claim? Can a “Moon market” in natural resources be created?

These were the questions taken up by the Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group which recently published the Building Blocks for the Development of an International Framework on Space Resource Activities. These building blocks are intended to serve as a guide to creating an international framework for the extraction and use of natural resources.

At their core, the building blocks call for a registry-based system for prioritizing the rights of both governmental and private actors to occupy a particular parcel of land on the Moon (or any other celestial body, for that matter,) On a first-come, first-serve basis, registrants would have a priority right to work the registered mine. Under Hague Building Blocks, a registration would describe the nature of the mission, including the location of the registrant’s activity. “Safety zones” would also be established to provide a buffer zone between the registered activity and any new activities undertaken by another operator. The building blocks also contain provisions to protect cultural or historical interest (such as the Apollo landing sites) as well as site of particular scientific interest.

The Hague Building Blocks were distributed to the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee meeting of COPUOS in February 2020. A General Exchange of Views with respect with resource extraction was on the agenda of the Legal Subcommittee meeting planned for March 2020, but cancelled due to the pandemic.

But why create a land use registry only for mining? As the first permanent human settlement on the Moon takes shape, the use of land will be varied. Some parcels will be used for mining and the processing of resources, while other parcels will be residential, scientific, and other uses of land that will eventually be as varied as they are here on Earth.

The MVA Principles address this issue by adopting the registry of the Hague International Working Group, but then expanding the registry to the broader category of “land use” in general, beyond mere resource extraction activities. To be clear, space resource activities would still be registrable under the MVA registry and would enjoy priority rights to harvest natural resources, subject to certain restrictions. But other types of land use would also receive the right to occupy and utilize a parcel of land.

Will the principles evolve over time? Absolutely. One of the touchstones of the MVA Principles is the concept of “adaptive governance,” that is, the incremental evolution of governance in step with technological and economic development. This suggests a light regulatory touch, but also an ability to respond nimbly to shifts in technology as necessary. The current Draft MVA Principles will be further revised in light of all comments received during the public comment period and will continue to evolve beyond that point.

What is the status of the MVA Principles? The authors were scheduled to make a joint technical presentation regarding the MVA Principles at the COPUOS Legal Subcommittee meeting. The principles are being currently being distributed to major stakeholders worldwide to invite them to comment and adopt the Principles to guide their activity. You can find the Draft MVA Principles along with instructions on how to submit your comments here.