UN Space Conventions (1972 and 1975): Ministerial & dti briefings, ratification held over

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Trade, Industry and Competition

30 June 2009
Chairperson: Ms J Fubbs (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed by the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) on two United Nations (UN) Conventions related to outer space, which the Department needed to have ratified. These were the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. The presentation detailed the background of the space arena, both on a national and international level. A technical overview of each of the Conventions was given, as well as the benefits that would be gained by ratifying these conventions. Members noted that they had not received enough details, and the Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry confirmed that this was a highly technical issue, with political ramifications as well, and agreed that a further briefing by the Ministry would be necessary. Other questions by Members included why the Department of Trade and Industry was involved in space matters, the level of cooperation with other departments, issues of liability for damage caused by ‘a space object, where the funding would emanate, what specific benefits were anticipated, and the capacity to deal with this and the other issues around the proposed Space Agency. It was noted that not all questions could be answered by the delegates present, and written responses would be provided to some questions. The Department, expanding further upon the conventions, advised that there was no specific deadline for ratification, and the Committee decided to investigate the matter more fully. Members then discussed oversight matters, the need to organise a strategic session to pinpoint critical issues that they would like the dti to address, and the possibility that the dti be asked again to give regular reports on their work to the Committee.

Meeting report

UN Convention on International Liability for Damage caused by Space Objects (1972) and UN Convention on Registration of Objects launched into Outer Space (1975): Department of Trade and Industry (dti) briefings
Ms Nomfuneko Majaja, Chief Director: Advanced Manufacturing: Space Affairs, dti, presented a proposal to the Committee for the ratification of the United Nations (UN) Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, of 1972, (Liability Convention) and the UN Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, 1975 (Registration Convention)

A brief explanation of international and national developments regarding space was given. This was followed by a briefing of the processes necessary before the ratification of these two conventions by Parliament could occur. It was confirmed that the necessary steps had been taken (see attached presentation)

Ms Majaja then explained each convention in more depth. The Liability Convention dealt with the responsibility of a State in the event of damages caused by its ‘space objects’. This convention also distinguished between different situations, where absolute, fault based of joint and several liability would be deemed to apply. The manner in which claims were made was also addressed.

The Registration Convention stipulated that a national registry of all space objects launched must be created, and specified the information to be supplied to the United Nations’ register. Each space object launched must have a registration number. Further technical details relating to both conventions were also given (see attached document).

The way in which these conventions would be implemented and monitored was discussed briefly. This was followed by a discussion of the benefits gained from the ratification of the conventions. Ms Majaja said this included space activities being carried out within a legal framework. This would guarantee the protection of the interests of the State and any people who might experience damage from space objects. Ratification would also open up opportunities for a South African space community in the form of industries and government organisations.


Mr M Oriani-Ambrosini (IFP) noted that the purpose of ratification of the conventions was that South Africa to become a launching State. He wondered if spending money on launching satellites at this time was cost efficient. He asked that the commitment to satellite communications be made clearer and that assurances be given that these communications would not be monopolised by a specific company.

Hon Thandi Tobias, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, said that the two questions relating to cost and monopolies were noted, and these would be addressed at a later point by the Department.

She noted that there was heavy competition to gain access to space and having a satellite would prove beneficial to the country. She said that the priority of government was social spending, and having a communications satellite formed part of that.

Advocate Luthando Mkhumathela, Chairperson of the Space Council, added that some of the benefits gained from communication satellites included navigation for aircraft in flight, gaining knowledge of weather patterns and navigation for fishing boats.

Ms Majaja responded that it was hoped that South Africa would be in a position to be a launching state in five to ten years time. She stated that the first satellite would be launched from Russia, as infrastructure was a problem in South Africa.

Ms C Kotsi (COPE) felt that the Committee was not yet informed enough to ratify the proposed conventions.

Deputy Minister Tobias stated that information of such a technical nature needed to be given to the Committee in advance. She was not sure whether a previous presentation may have been made to the Minister. More communication between the Ministry and the Committee was needed. She proposed that further presentations be given by the Minister to clarify a number of concerns raised by the Committee and to gain a more political, rather than technical, understanding of the issues at hand.

Ms Kotsi asked how involved the government had been in this process, and who was accountable, whether it was the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) or Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Mr Z Ntuli (ANC) wondered whether it was more appropriate for control of these Conventions to fall under the departments dealing with state security or defence, and asked how these matters would influence trade and industry.

Mr S Njikelana (ANC) asked whether there was a representative from the dti in the South African Space Council, and if so, what role this person played and what role the various participating departments and organisations played.

Deputy Minister Tobias firstly address Mr Ntuli’s question, and said that dti formed part of the economic and security cluster, and so the security elements would make inputs into the Space Agency’s proposals and projects.

Ms Majaja stated that the Space Council lay within the dti, and was comprised of representatives from various departments, including the Department of Communications, the Department of Defence, and the Department of Foreign Affairs. There were also plans to include the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Education. Two members of the dti also sat on the Council. She added that the process was inclusive, as all these parties were consulted on the ratification of the Conventions, and also on the Policy.

Ms Majaja explained that the reasons for locating the Space Council within the dti were based on studies and comparisons done on other countries and where these had placed their space programmes. This varied according to the purposes for which the countries wanted to use the space programmes. In South Africa, the purpose of the space programmes was to promote societal benefits, which was the reason the programmes fell under the dti. In future, however, it was possible that these might be more appropriately placed within the Presidency.

Ms Kotsi asked that ‘space objects’ to be more clearly defined.

Advocate Mkhumathela said a ‘space object’ was any object or piece of an object that was launched towards outer space.

Mr Ntuli noted that liability attached to the launching State if a fault lay with that State, but asked where liability would attach if no fault could be found with a State.

Advocate Mkhumathela said that, in terms of the Liability convention, if a successfully launched object reached the end of its life and fell towards earth, the State that launched the object would take responsibility for any damage it caused. If satellites collided, fault would have to be established.

Deputy Minister Tobias complimented Adv Mkhumathela on his explanation of liability, and stressed that the instances where damage was done were rare, and thus not of great concern.

Mr X Mabaso (ANC) asked who was responsible for deciding the penalties, and what organisations or members were involved with this deciding body.

Advocate Mkhumathela said that an evaluation of the damages caused by a ‘space object’ would be made in terms of the Convention, and that these were open to negotiation.

Mr Mabaso asked how the programme connected with the set up of the UN, in order to gain a visual understanding of the scope of South Africa’s programme and satellite systems.

Ms Majaja explained that the Space Affairs Act was developed by the dti, which acted as its custodian. This Act established the Space Council, and required that South Africa must formulate a Space Policy be formulated. The role of the Council was to act as an advisory and regulatory body for the dti, and to act as an advocate to educate the public on space and the potential benefits gained from having a space programme.

Mr Mabaso asked who was responsible for giving funding.

Ms Majaja said that the funding for the establishment of a national register would have to come from the dti, adding that the State would incur the various costs.

Mr E Gcwabaza (ANC) asked if territorial waters were included in the liability convention, and if ‘space craft’ included commercial flights.

Mr Gcwabaza asked whether the current legal framework would be able to accommodate these Conventions.

Ms Majaja said that the State Legal Advisors within the Department of Foreign Affairs and within the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development were consulted before this process began, to ensure that the ratification of the Conventions would have no negative impact on South Africa.

Mr Njikelana also asked how space object registration was done.

Mr Njikelana asked when the conventions were negotiated, and whether these could be reviewed in the future. He asked how old the five conventions were, as reference was made to five conventions, but the two mentioned in the presentation had differing dates.

Ms Majaja added that the Conventions had been negotiated over a period of time. The Liability Convention was adopted in 1972, while the Registration Convention was adopted in 1975.

Adv Mkhumathela said that the treaties were reviewed on a yearly basis by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. There were 68 participating countries, including South Africa. The Conventions had not been amended as they were seen to function satisfactorily.

The Chairperson commented that a long period of time had elapsed between the adoption of the conventions and their ratification, and asked why this was so.

Adv Mkhumathela said that four of the conventions were linked, and the reasons for them not being ratified were that the space programme was shut down after 1994.

Ms Majaja added that the South African Space Agency was now in the process of being established, and that all government departments would be involved.

The Chairperson asked what the deadline for ratification was, and how much time the Committee would have to process this information. She stated that she did not want to set a precedent of pushing matters through due to time constraints.

Deputy Minister Tobias reiterated that the Department needed to consult with the Committee in order for a clarification of the political side of the proposal to be gained. She said that she would organise for this.

The Chairperson noted that some questions would not be answered by the present delegation, but said that responses would still be needed by the Committee.

The Chairperson asking how it was possible to identify pieces of satellites.

The Chairperson said that a number of years ago students had launched an experimental satellite. She asked if this was done legally, and what the socio-economic benefits of this experiment were.

Mr Ntuli suggested that some of the questions posed by the Committee be responded to at a later point, as time was running out.

Mr Ntuli noted that Nigeria had set up a space agency, and asked whether it was possible for South Africa to cooperate with Nigeria to use this, rather than to develop a new one.

Mr Mabaso said that he wanted his question relating to the scope of the satellite systems to be answered.

Ms Tobias stated that Mr Mabaso’s question referred to privileged information, as he wanted to know what area the satellites could cover.

Mr Mabaso then also asked how capacity would be created in South Africa to deal with the demands of the Space Agency. If it was necessary to import skills in the short term, then he said that in the medium term there should be an aim to provide these skills locally.

Mr Njikelana proposed that all the issues relating to this matter be circulated. He suggested that creating an electronic library would be useful.

Mr Njikelana asked for a full briefing to be made to the Committee both by the Department of Science and Technology and other departments. He also suggested that the dti provide a list of institutions, agencies and programmes that had not yet come before the Committee, so that some preparation could take place.

Ms Majaja said she appreciated Mr Njikelana’s proposal of an electronic library as there was much information on the subject, and it was essential to be able to understand it. She stated that the government had wanted to resuscitate the space programme, focussing on ensuring that societal benefits were addressed, and that there were a number of challenges that could be addressed using data captured by satellites. This strategy, which was finished but not yet bound, would build on the policy, and a number of priority areas would be addressed. These would include economic growth and innovation, public safety and security, and environmental and resource management.

The Chairperson noted again that some of the concerns raised could not be addressed by the present delegation. She again asked what the deadline was for the Committee to address this issue.

Ms Majaja stated that there was no specific deadline, and the proposal could be assessed at the Committee’s leisure.

The delegation from dti was excused at this point.

Other Committee Business
The Chairperson noted that the Committee must come to a decision in principle on the dti’s invitation to the Committee to attend, at the dti’s expense, a function on oversight and orientation on 22 and 23 July. She also asked that Members indicate whether they might be available.

She said that a Committee strategic lekgotla was needed, and this would take place some time in August. All committee Members were urged to attend, as it would address questions such as how much time was needed to go through processes such as ratification, as this Committee did not want to “rubber-stamp” any agreements. The Committee would also have to decide what critical activities the dti should undertake and what oversight the Committee should carry out.

Mr Mabaso noted that more cooperation on various issues was needed with the dti, as he felt the Committee was often left behind. He noted that some Committees in the past had only performed oversight visits twice in five years.

 The Chairperson said that it was a financial issue, as oversight visits were not receiving funding at the moment. This was, however, an important point that she would raise with the Minister.

Mr Njikelana noted that in the past dti had circulated reports on their activities, which was useful and should be continued. He would like to present his ideas about the structure of orientation to the Committee.

The meeting was adjourned.

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