“Our air, our water! Ereluf beltalowda! Owkwa beltalowda! You can’t silence us! Belters won’t stand for this forever!”
Fans of SyFy’s The Expanse were dealt a blow this week when the network announced it would be cancelling the highly rated sci-fi show. Fans were also quick to respond, however, petitioning for Amazon to pick up the show and even going so far as flying a banner over the studio’s headquarters. The space opera, which has been called a spiritual successor to the revered Battlestar Galactica, is one of the best new space-based sci-fi shows in recent memory. Check out this killer fan-made trailer to get a taste of the show.
The plot goes as follows: After the exploration and settlement of Mars, Earth unites as one government under the United Nations (“UN”). After a few generations of unrest and resentment, the territorial government of Mars exchanges its newly-invented “Epstein Drive” with Earth to guarantee their independence. The Drive allows much faster, more efficient space travel to the outer solar system, where both Earth and Mars tenuously share the right and responsibility of “mining” natural resources in an asteroid belt (“the Belt”) between Mars and Jupiter. Still, the militaristic government of Mars is not happy with its portion of the resources (namely, water), and a type of cold war exists between the two planets.
Millions of miles from these planets, it only takes a few generations before those born in the Belt start to grumble. Belters have their own language (lang Belta, or “Belter Creole”), are taller and thinner due to the low gravity, and generally poorer in health due to atmospheric and environmental issues. Most Belters have never been to a civilized planet, and they have no residual love for the place their great-great-great grandparents were born. Resenting the second-class citizenship afforded them by the “Earthers and Dusters,” some Belters form the “Outer Planet Alliance” to fight for autonomy and more rights. Like most freedom-seeking organizations that employ violence, Earth and Mars are quick to label the OPA a terrorist organization and the planets quickly suppress any independence talk by the Belt.
Rich in natural resources and far from the inner planets, it’s easy to see why the Belters feel like they deserve more. Because Earth’s resources are gone and Mars has very little natural resources to speak of, it’s even easier to understand why they would not give up control of the Belt without a fight. So how can the Belt establish its independence? Fortunately, Earth has seen its share of independence movements and the path to independent nationhood (Is this planethood? non-planetary-grouphood?) is well established—if not also exceedingly difficult.
Establishing Sovereign Independence
While no universal agreement on how to establish an independent nation or non-planetary asteroid belt exists, history provides us with a solid outline. First, the group must meet certain practical requirements involving territory, population, and government. Second, the group must declare its independence. Third, but not necessarily fatal, other governments must recognize the group’s independence and sovereignty. Based on what we have seen of the Belt in The Expanse, I think the Belters stand a decent chance in the long run. Earth and Mars can’t destroy the Belt, they need it.
A. Basic Eligibility Requirements
In the Montevideo Convention of 1933, 19 nations in North and South America codified the declarative theory of statehood as accepted as part of customary international law. The Convention, which set out the definition, rights, and duties of statehood, acknowledged that “[t]he state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, Dec. 26, 1933, 49 Stat 3097, T.S. No. 881, 165 L.N.T.S. 19; see also Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations Law § 201 (1987). To meet the third and fourth requirement, it’s likely the entity also “must be capable of acting independently of foreign governments.” IV Encyclopedia of Public International Law 603 (Rudolf Bernhardt ed., 1st ed. 2000).
The Belters probably can meet all of these requirements, but their reliance on Earth and Mars could mean that it doesn’t matter. The Belt has somewhere between 50 and 100 million inhabitants, spread across five major colonies: Ceres, Vesta, Eros, Anderson Station, and Tycho Station. These colonies are located amid the general orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and could be “geographically” limited to the space between the current outer posts.
Furthermore, although Earth and Mars considered the OPA to be a terrorist organization, Belters view the group as a de-centralized sociopolitical movement capable of Belt governance. Assuming OPA leaders like Fred Johnson could unite the various factions, the Belt should be able to establish an actual working government. Whether the Belt is “capable of acting independently of foreign governments,” however, depends solely on its reliance on Earth and Mars for air and other goods that are naturally found in the Belt. My guess is they could.
B. Declaration of Belt Independence
Throughout history, groups have successfully declared themselves independent of their colonial masters. For example, the Cabinet of Rhodesia adopted the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, declaring itself independent of Great Britain in November of 1965. The most famous example is arguably the United States’ Declaration of Independence (“DOI”) in 1776, which declared that “these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States,” and promptly started a war. Although the DOI “may not have the force of organic law,” Cotting v. Godard, 183 U.S. 79, 107 (1901); see also Alexander Tsesis, Self-Government and the Declaration of Independence, 97 Cornell L. Rev. 693, 696 (2012), it served its purpose in declaring the United States an independent nation.
The UN’s International Court of Justice also “considers that general international law contains no applicable prohibition of declarations of independence” and unilateral declarations of that type are not illegal. See Accordance with International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Respect of Kosovo, Advisory Opinion, 2010 I.C.J. 403 at ¶ 84 (July 22). Although the Belters have not made such a declaration, it is easy enough to imagine one:
We declare the Main Asteroid Belt to be a democratic, secular, and multi-ethnic, non-planetary republic, guided by the principles of non-discrimination and equal protection under the law. We shall protect and promote the rights of all communities in the Belt and create the conditions necessary for their effective participation in political and decision-making processes. Because the history of Earth and Mars is one of subjugation, exploitation, and neglect, we hereby break all allegiances with those planets. Furthermore, we commit to protecting the rights, resources, and lives of all Belters, as is our right.
You’re welcome Fred.
“Recognition is a ‘formal acknowledgement’ that a particular ‘entity possesses the qualifications for statehood’ or ‘that a particular regime is the effective government of a state.’” Zivotofsky ex rel. Zivotofsky v. Kerry, 135 S. Ct. 2076, 2084 (2015) (quoting § 203, cmt. a). This last stage of establishing definitive statehood presents the most difficult for those in the Belt. Unlike Earth, which previously had many different nations that could recognize a new country, the Belt can only seek recognition from Earth and Mars. No other governments even exist within the solar system.
Fortunately, as the Restatement explains: “An entity that satisfies the requirements of § 201 is a state whether or not its statehood is formally recognized by other states.” § 202, cmt. b. And under United States’ law, recognition mostly seems to be “a precondition of regular diplomatic relations,” see Zivotofsky, 135 S. Ct. at 2084, not a precondition for independence. Because the Belt is unlikely to be recognized by Earth or Mars—absent a treaty establishing trade with one but not the other—it may be difficult to gain an accepted independence outside of the Belt’s confines.
Although the Belt may meet international law’s qualifications for becoming an independent and sovereign entity, which it could legally declare itself to be, it’s hard to imagine Earth or Mars giving up their space-age breadbasket and recognizing the Belt as such. Without negotiating or fighting for that recognition, the Belt could still act independently in its own territories; however, it would not have the benefit of trade or diplomacy with its planetary-based neighbors. Fortuitously, the Belt may have been dealt a strong hand to play (Warning: Spoiler), but we likely won’t get to find out unless Amazon picks up the series. No, seriously, Amazon, you should pick up the series. Please?
- Because air and water are more precious than gold in the Belt, I’m sure scores of air and water lawyers argue about all the attendant regulations and statutes. What are water rights in space like?
- The Expanse does a great job anticipating changes in culture due to the effects of space. Like the inclusion of hand symbols in lang Belta, which developed when Belters were doing space walks and needed to communicate quickly.
- Would death by being sucked out into space be considered cruel and unusual? My guess is that the practice, like walking the plank, is pretty commonplace in the more remote Belt outposts. Probably not.
- Apparently legal battles are already being planned over the colonization of Mars, so maybe we can get all of these hashed out in the next hundred or so years. I vote for Belter rights!