Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects and Convention on Registration of Objects Launched

NCOP Trade & Industry, Economic Development, Small Business, Tourism, Employment & Labour

15 September 2009
Chairperson: Mr D Gamede (ANC, KwaZulu-Natal)
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Meeting Summary

The Chief Director: Advanced Management of the Department of Trade and Industries briefed the Committee on the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched.  The presentation included the processes followed by the Department for the ratification of the Conventions by South Africa, the background to the Conventions, the various stakeholders involved in the South African space programme, the legislative framework, the National Space Policy, the role of the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space and the applicable international space and related treaties.

The Committee was briefed on the main provisions and benefits of the Conventions and the implementation plan under development by the South African Council for Space Affairs.  The Department of Trade and Industry retained overall responsibility for the implementation of the National Space Policy and the Conventions.

The Division Head: Space Science and Technology of the National Research Foundation explained how the activities in space impacted on every aspect of daily life.  The orderly control of the space domain was important for security on Earth.

The Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industries had approved the ratification of the Conventions on 3 September 2009.  The ratification of the Conventions was tabled in the National Assembly on 8 September 2009.  South Africa was in the process of launching the Sumbandila satellite and the Committee was urged to approve the ratification of the Conventions.

Members expressed dissatisfaction over the omission to invite the Committee to the workshop held in September 2009.  Members asked questions concerning the development of launch capability in South Africa, the reasons for the launching of the Sumbandila satellite in Russia, the necessity for and the costs associated with building its own satellites compared to making use of the satellites owned by other countries and the development of partnerships with other countries in Africa, South America and the Indian subcontinent.

The Committee decided to continue deliberations and to recommend ratification of the Conventions during a meeting scheduled for the following week.

Meeting report

Presentation by Department of Trade and Industries
Ms Nomfuneko Majaja (Chief Director: Advanced Management, Department of Trade and Industries (DTI)) thanked Mr Peter Martinez from the National Research Foundation for his presence at the briefing.  The DTI participated in the regulatory body which controlled space affairs.  She regretted to announce that the Sumbandila satellite had not been launched as planned the previous day due to bad weather.  She hoped that the launch would take place that night.

Ms Majaja explained that the DTI had followed a process with the ratification of the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects and of the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched.  On 1 July 2009 the DTI had presented the Conventions to the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industries.  On 2 September 2009 an interactive workshop was held with stakeholders, including the Department of Science and Technology (DST), SunSpace (who had manufactured Sumbandila), the University of Stellenbosch and others.  The Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industries had approved the ratification of the Conventions on 3 September 2009.  The ratification of the Conventions was tabled in the National Assembly on 8 September 2009.

South Africa's activities in outer space were controlled by the Space Affairs Act (SAA) of 1993.  Outer space was described as the area high enough above the Earth to enable objects to be placed into orbit and covered all the empty regions of the universe.

Ms Majaja outlined some of the activities resulting from the use of outer space.  Satellite imagery could be used to plan the development of urban areas and provide warnings of dangerous weather systems and fires.  The activities of the United Nations (UN) were aided.  Dam and water levels could be monitored and planning could be enhanced.  Floods and sea temperatures could be monitored.  Satellite imagery could assist with the control of traffic in the air, on the ground and at sea.  Another major use of satellite technology was for communications.  There were spin-off benefits for high technology industries.  There were applications even in terms of security and livestock control.  Water purification systems had been developed from technology used on spacecraft.

Ms Majaja said that a number of Government departments were involved in space technology.  The DTI was responsible for policy and industrial development, regulation and international co-operation.  The Satellite Application Centre at Hartebeeshoek received satellite images.  Satellite communications and research were high technology areas, involving were many institutions.  The National Research Foundation (NRF) was responsible for astronomy and reported to the DST.  The Overberg Test Range (OTR) reported to the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE).  Houwteq dealt with the testing and integration of satellite systems and reported to the Department of Communications (DoC).  The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) reported to the DST.  The CSIR was the location for the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), which was the vehicle created for the coordination of space activities.  The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) had an interest in satellite technology.  Telkom and Sentech reported to the DoC.  The Hermanus Magnetic Observatory and South African Environmental Observation Network fell under the ambit of the CSIR and DST.  The South African National Antarctic Programme and weather services were the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT).  There were also other stakeholders such as private businesses.

Ms Majaja said that there was a need to ensure that space activities were co-ordinated.  The DTI had started to develop policies in March 2009.  SANSA was promulgated by Parliament early in 2009.  The DST was the lead structure to pursue the possibilities.  Satellites were now used mainly for civilian applications whereas military applications had been the driving force in the past.  The legislative framework was the Space Affairs Act (no. 84 of 1993).  The Act was amended in 1995.  The South African Council for Space Affairs (SACSA) reported to the Minister of Trade and Industries.  SACSA was charged with implementing the regulatory function in accordance with international agreements.  The Council’s term had ended in June 2009 and Cabinet would look at reconstituting SACSA in September 2009.  Cabinet had approved a space policy in 2008.  This was a guiding document.  South Africa was to be a responsible user of space by implementing national legislation and following international practice.  Policies would be implemented by the various departments in accordance with their individual mandates.

The SANSA Act had been promulgated in 2008.  Once SANSA was initiated it would implement policy.  The DST was the leader in terms of strategy.  Three elements of the strategy were environmental and resource management, public safety and security, and innovation and economic growth.  Each sector required regulation.

Ms Majaja said that the UN had established the UN Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) in 1959.  South Africa was one of 69 members of the Committee.  There were sub-committees for science and technology and for legal issues.  Five treaties concerning UN principles, international co-operation, limitations on the use of nuclear energy and remote sensing from outer space were published. 

The first major treaty applicable to South Africa was the Outer Space Treaty of 1957.  This was the basic framework for international space law.  All activities had to be for peaceful purposes.  Space exploration was to be for the benefit of all mankind.  South Africa was a signatory to this treaty and to the Rescue Agreement of 1968.  This agreement dealt with the arrangements for the rescue of space crew members.  The two conventions discussed at this meeting both originated from the 1970's.  The Moon Agreement of 1979 identified the moon as a common heritage area.  Other agreements reached included a ban on nuclear weapon tests in outer space or underwater.  This was the terrain of the Non-Proliferation Committee.  South Africa had ratified this agreement.  The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) controlled the frequency spectrum used for satellite communications.  The DoC operated within the ITU jurisdiction.  Outer space was a zone of peace, solidarity and co-operation.

Ms Majaja said that there was a question as to the importance to the country of having its own satellite rather than making use of the satellites of other countries.  She listed a number of benefits associated with a South African Satellite, including the minimisation of the need to purchase expensive data and the resultant saving of foreign exchange and access to high end technology.  The DTI had a national industrial policy framework, which was moving towards a knowledge based economy.  High technology industries realised this.  By developing its rocket science, the country would demonstrate its capability and foster economic growth.  Involvement would contribute to meeting societal challenges in terms of resource management in agriculture, water affairs and disaster management.  The use of satellite imagery benefited access to remote areas.

Convention on the International Liability for Damage Cause by Space Objects
The Convention on the International Liability for Damage Cause by Space Objects was drafted in 1972.  Article II stated that the launching state was liable for any damage caused on Earth or to aircraft in flight.  The only exception was in the case of gross negligence in which case the negligent state would be liable.  Article III stated that a fault-based liability would be applicable to damage which did not occur on Earth.  Article V stated that in the event of a launch being the product of a joint effort then the states concerned would be held severally and jointly liable for damages.  There was a procedure for lodging claims.  A claims commission would be appointed if there was any disagreement on the application of the convention.  Claims would be valid for one year after the incident or from the time that the country became aware of the incident.  International law governed compensation but the Convention regulated liability.

Convention on Registration of Objects Launched
The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched was adopted in 1975.  All objects launched had to be registered with the UN.  A register was maintained and it was the responsibility of the launching state to provide the necessary information to the UN.  A national register had to be maintained and include statistical data.  If more than one state was involved in the launch then the countries concerned would have to decide amongst themselves who would submit reports to the UN.  All objects had to be identified with a registration number. 

Ms Majaja explained the benefits of working within the Conventions.  Benefits included freedom of exploration, an increase in the safety of space activities, increased credibility and confidence in South Africa's space operations and enhanced authority.  The Conventions allowed for a peaceful settlement of disputes and the protection of victims.  Claims were limited to the signatories to the Conventions.  SACSA was responsible for the development of an implementation plan.  The SAA made provision for international conventions.  Any space activity would have to be approved by SACSA, which would manage the national register.  The DTI would oversee the implementation of the conventions.

Mr Peter Martinez (Division Head: Space Science and Technology, NRF) said that space technology sounded esoteric.  People questioned the expenses of space activity when there were so many priorities on Earth.  There were many examples where space technology was used in everyday life, including the simple activity of listening to a weather forecast, communicating and making use of an automatic teller machine network.  Space technology underpinned the information society.  Most satellites were used for services on the ground.  The orderly control of the domain was important.  Security on Earth was linked to security in outer space.  The Conventions were a vehicle to build confidence.

Mr F Adams (ANC, Western Cape) said that it was important to know why there was this concentration on space affairs.  He had a problem with the workshop that was held on 2 September.  The Portfolio Committees on Trade and Industries and on Science and Technology attended the workshop but the Members of the Select Committee were not invited.  He asked why this Committee should be asked to ratify the Conventions if they had not been part of the process.  He reminded the DTI that both Houses of Parliament had to ratify an international convention.  He asked if the country could have its own launch capability and its own space vehicles if the Conventions were ratified.  Using foreign resources cost money, which could be retained in the country.

Mr A Nyambi (ANC, Mpumalanga) asked why matters concerning space fell within the ambit of more than one Department.  He felt that the Committee was advised of the Sumbandila launch in a casual manner.  A forum was needed to clarify the issue.  He felt that he did not have enough information to answer the questions constituents might pose to him.  The presentation was not complicated but he was still confused on hearing it for the first time.  There was a large degree of scientific detail involved.

Mr B Mnguni (ANC, Free State) asked why the Sumbandila satellite had to be launched in Russia.  In terms of the liability, he asked what the position would be if a citizen of the launch country itself was injured by a space object.

Ms Majaja apologised for the unfortunate omission of the Committee from the invitations to the workshop.  She explained that the workshop was arranged by the Portfolio Committee and not by the DTI.  The DTI felt that the Members of the Committee should have been included.  Members should also be invited to visit some of the space facilities, most of which were located in the Western Cape.  She said that the DTI, using the services of SACSA, played a role in policy development and acted as a regulator.  The Department gave guidance and conducted inspections.  Other Departments involved implemented their own programmes.  The DTI did not want to act as both referee and player and therefore some separation was needed.

Ms Majaj said that South Africa did not have a proper launch capability at present. The policy was that the country should become self-sufficient in due course.  This would include both the operation and launch of satellites and the process was underway.  However, a major investment in capital and time was required.  The facilities of other countries were used in the interim.  South Africa had a bilateral agreement with Russia and was working towards concluding an agreement with India.  India was using outer space technology for developmental purposes and had a number of programmes involving satellite communication to enhance health and education programmes.

Mr Martinez explained that launch capability was dependent on the access to space.  It was an important point as a satellite was useless while still on the ground.  Sumbandila had been sitting on the ground for two years while awaiting a launch opportunity.  Launch capability was a very expensive option but would raise the bar in the country's status.  There had been a Government study into South Africa's capabilities in a global context.  There were three clusters of countries - advanced countries included the United States of America, United Kingdom and Russia and the middle cluster included countries in continental Europe.  South Africa was at the forefront of the emerging cluster and had made an historical investment in the space programme.  The country was pursuing further developmental opportunities.  The question of when the country would be ready to establish a launch capability was dependent on political will.  Space was not an isolated domain and space activities touched on the lives of people in many ways.  South Africa followed the international example of having a lead agency but specific activities were spread amongst different responsible departments.  If damage was caused to the citizens of the launch country then the normal legal channels could be pursued for compensation.  It would not be necessary to follow an international process.

Mr Adams had served in the previous Parliament. He said that Members were advised that South Africa would invest in its own launch pad.  Candidate sites identified were the OTR, Sutherland and a location in the Highveld.  He asked if it was not better for South Africa to have its own facility, given its leadership role in Africa.  Millions had been invested in the SALT telescope project.  The country had brilliant scientists and a considerable investment had been made in mathematics and science education.  He asked if a launch facility should not be on the priority list.  He had seen the benefits to rural development in India.  He quoted the example of video operations where surgeons operating in remote areas were put in video contact with distant specialists.  Space technology was one of the fastest growing industries and the country could be left behind quickly by the pace of developments.  Returning to the issue of the stakeholders’ workshop, he said that if the Portfolio Committee had arranged this the Parliamentary Liaison Officer (PLO) should have picked up the fact that this Committee was not invited.

Mr Nyambi said that Ms Majaja was clear on the benefits of space activities.  He asked how the problems surrounding the launch of Sumbandila had been handled.  He asked what the implications in the event of an accident would be as South Africa was still to ratify the convention.

Ms Majaja explained that the name Sumbandila was a Venda term for Pathfinder.  She said that it was a good idea to launch South Africa's first satellite but a substantial financial and human resource investment was required.  The space industry had recently been resuscitated.  The problem with having an internal launch facility was that it would stand idle for much of the time.  She anticipated that South Africa would only launch three satellites in ten years and having its own launch facility would not be economical.  She wanted to see an increase in the development of resources and capability.

Ms Majaja agreed that the PLO should have noticed that the Committee was not invited to the workshop.  A lesson had been learned.  She confirmed that it was not necessary for South Africa to have signed the treaty before launching the satellite.  It was however an international principle to ratify the treaty and South Africa wanted to be a credible player in the space arena.

Mr Martinez said that these points were close to his heart.  He had received photographs of the satellite being fitted into the rocket that would launch it into orbit.  The Russians had agreed to display a South African flag on the launch vehicle. South Africa was not starting from scratch and was in a better position than many other countries.  The country could build on existing policy. The India/Brazil/South Africa (IBSA) partnership was of a strategic nature.  A local company called Marcom was involved in the development of commercial launch vehicles.  Marcom was not receiving any Government aid but intended making its mark in the international market.

Regarding possible damage caused by Sumbandila, Mr Martinez explained that the onus would fall on Russia as a signatory to the Convention.  Even if all joint parties were not signatories, and agreement could be reached.  For example, the Russians could accept liability should the rocket fail while South Africa could accept responsibility for the satellite falling from orbit.  He admitted that it would be easier once the Convention was ratified.

Ms E van Lingen (DA, Eastern Cape) noted that Nigeria and Algeria both had their own space agencies, funded by money from oil.  She asked why there was not a partnership in Africa.  She asked how far removed the southern hemisphere countries were.  She asked if IBSA was a long or medium term programme.

Mr Adams asked what the relative costs were of manufacturing satellites compared to renting foreign satellites. The SAA was promulgated in 2008 and he asked why the country could not make the necessary investment in its own space programme.  He felt that the funding of foreign projects was pouring money down the drain.

Ms Majaja said that she was very impressed with the strong recommendation.  She confirmed that South Africa was working with other African states.  A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Nigeria and Algeria was in the process of being developed as a result of a declaration of intent.  A conference had been held in Vienna with the aim of establishing a constellation of satellites between the three countries.  The constellation would be open to any other country.  Kenya was also involved but had been distracted by recent political upheavals.  Interest was being rekindled in Kenya.  Data would be shared between the countries involved.  South Africa would be the driving force in the process.  She hoped that the MoU would be signed by the end of 2009.  A suitable occasion would be the African leadership conference to be held in Algeria during December 2009.  The development of a South African launch capability would aid sustainability.  She assumed that the costs of rental were high and the procurement of data cost a substantial amount of foreign exchange as well.

Mr Edwin Conroy (Researcher, Office of the Chief Whip of the National Council of Provinces) said that meteorological information was obtained from satellites.  The need for meteorological information extended the debate on whether South Africa needed its own satellite or continued to buy the information from other countries.

Mr Martinez said that a number of other African countries would become part of the partnership at different levels.  Italy had built a launch platform off the Kenyan coast.  It would be tragic if another African country cornered the market.  South Africa should be the leader.  He explained that the calculations to determine the cost of Earth observation were complex.  Hundreds of millions of Rand were spent on the procurement of data.  In certain cases, three levels of Government obtained the same data and each was charged the same amount for it.  A multiple user licence had since been acquired, which resulted in a significant reduction in costs.

The Chairperson hoped that the Committee and the Department could meet again to take the process forward.  He assured the Department that the Committee wished to deal with the issues swiftly.  The Committee’s role in the international relations sphere involved many treaties and conventions. There was a need to engage on international matters.  The Committee planned to hold deliberations during the following week.

Mr Adams proposed that the Committee took the opportunity to recommend the ratification of the Conventions at the meeting scheduled for the following week.  His proposal was seconded by Mr N Maine (ANC, North West).

Ms Majaja suggested that another workshop was scheduled.

The Chairperson announced that the Members of the Committee would proceed with other work and excused all other persons present from the continuation of the meeting.


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