“We. Are. Belters. Nothing in the void is foreign to us! The place we go is the place we belong . . . WE ARE THE BELT! THIS MOMENT BELONGS TO US!”
In my last article on The Expanse, I examined how the Belters could establish their independence from Earth and the Martian Congressional Republic. In short, I argued that the Belters could meet the international requirements for independence because (1) the Belt meets certain practical requirements involving territory, population, and government, (2) the group could unilaterally declare its independence, and (3) although the Terran and Martian governments need not recognize the group’s sovereignty, they likely would because of the difficulty in fighting the Belt, the need for its resources, and the Belters’ possession of the protomolecule.
A few days after the article published, SyFy aired “Delta-V,” which debuted the newly independent government of the Outer Planets Alliance (“OPA”). I, for one, assume they read my article and decided to take my advice because they know that The Legal Geeks are at the cutting edge of sci-fi law. “Sure,” you might say, “but what about the fact that episodes and storylines take months or years to write and shoot?” Like I told my wife when she asked the same thing: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Sadly, The Expanse jumped to a few months after the Belter independence movement and so we will never know for sure whether they took my advice.
Outer Planets Alliance as a Nation
What we do know, however, is that the OPA is now a fully-functioning government. Jointly led by Anderson Dawes and Fred Johnson, the OPA established its Belter-staffed Free Navy and recovered the previously-commandeered Mormon ship, the Nauvoo. After retrofitting the Nauvoo as the solar system’s largest weapons platform battleship, the newly-christened OPAS Behemoth joins the inner planets’ naval forces to investigate “The Ring.”
The Ring, formed by the protomolecule, is an unknown object sitting just off of Uranus’s orbit. After the Belter “rock hopper” Néo slingshots through the Ring and into eternity (as well as Belter history books), the unknown alien object comes alive as a sort of wormhole. Eventually, the show’s main protagonists enter the Ring in the Rocinante, followed closely by an OPA torpedo and the Martian warship Xuesen. The Martians quickly send a probe back out of the Ring, telling Earth and the OPA to wait outside the wormhole in no uncertain terms. But the OPAS Behemoth’s captain Camina Drummer is having none of that. The Ring is in the Belt, she exclaims, and so the OPA owns the rights to explore and control it.
So is she right? Does the OPA have a claim on the Ring, for good or for bad? Assuming there have not been some massive changes to space law (which is a huge assumption considering space has now been colonized), my guess is that they do not have a legal claim on the Ring and they also cannot stop Earth and Mars from exploring it, but they can simply ignore space law and try anyway.
Outer Space Treaty
In 1967, the major space-faring nations signed the Outer Space Treaty (“OST”), which provides the basic legal framework for space travel and exploration. Currently signed by 130 nations, the OST specifically states that “[o]uter space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” See OST, Art. II. The OST also mandates that “[o]uter space . . . shall be free for exploration and use by all States . . ., and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies,” see id. Art. I. Furthermore, “Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies . . . in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co- operation and understanding.” Id. Art. III. Effectively, space law currently is hinged on the concept of “the common heritage of mankind,” whereby any person can explore or exploit outer space resources.
Based on the OST, it seems, the OPA is out of luck. The Ring, although not a “celestial body” per se, is certainly an enormous object in outer space. Not unlike an asteroid, the protomolecule basis for the Ring suggests that it could move through space. So whether the Ring remains in Belter territory is yet to be established, potentially foreclosing a claim of right as the territorial sovereign of the “land.” But considering that the OPA encompasses more than just one planet or celestial body, the Belters could argue that anything less than total control over all celestial bodies and objects in the outer rings undermines its own sovereign rights as a state. See Brian Taylor Sumner, Territorial Disputes at the International Court of Justice, 53 Duke L.J. 1779 (2004) (“In international law and relations, ownership of territory is significant because sovereignty over land defines what constitutes a state.”).
Another possible route for the OPA to take control of the Ring is to assert and militarily defend its right. Although the OST specifically forbids assertions of sovereignty, that treaty only has force based on the consent of the States in existence. If the OPA declares itself owner of the Ring, backs that declaration with the OPAS Behemoth and its other ships, it could force Earth and Mars to respond or back down. See Leslie I. Tennen, Esq., Towards A New Regime for Exploitation of Outer Space Mineral Resources, 88 Neb. L. Rev. 794, 805 (2010) (“The mere recognition of claims by a state would constitute a de facto exclusion of other states and their nationals, and thereby constitute a form of national appropriation.”). Considering how well the OPA fared in establishing its independence, my guess is that they will be quick to pull the same card again.
Although current space law expressly forbids claims on celestial bodies by governments, the OPA could simply disregard “the common heritage of mankind” and claim the Ring for itself. Whether the new nation state could defend such a claim or whether the Ring stays in place, has yet to be seen. Given the Captain Drummer and the OPAS Behemoth’s crew’s fervor for Belter rights, my guess is that they will at least try.
- It doesn’t look like the Ring has any resources or purpose to speak of, save slowing down matter. Laying claim to the Ring itself then, seemingly only ensures the territorial bounds of the OPA’s area.
- Josephus “Joe” Aloisius Miller’s transformation from a hardened, world-weary detective to a hardened, fourth realm Investigator is a real show stopper. But for real, Miller’s return is a great addition.
- I can’t wait for the inevitable battleship chase in the Ring, which will be the slowest chase in The Expanse ever.
- A big thanks to r/TheExpanse and Amazon for saving the show. Television needs more great sci-fi like The Expanse.