Initiated and coordinated by IISL member Michael Bohlander.

In February 2024, after approval of its establishment by the IISL in 2023, the interdisciplinary working group on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and Law, SETI@IISL, met for its inaugural plenary session.

Background

Traditionally, since the late 1950s, SETI had been the domain of astronomers. Contact was expected to be a signal from afar. A lot of thinking had gone into confirming signal detection as the type of first contact. Considering forms of direct contact inevitably meant dealing with UFOs, alien abductions etc., and triggered an aversion among academics to being tagged as “alien hunters”. SETI has so far mostly used passive methods of observation, yet METI  (Messaging to ETI), i.e., sending messages into space, also has had a large following. If one accepts the possibility of contact as a necessary point of departure, the impact of contact on human society may be serious to catastrophic, depending on the kind of contact: Finding microbes on Mars would pale in comparison to an artificial radio signal, which in turn would likely appear much less threatening than a derelict alien artefact in our solar system. An active alien spaceship or probe in our solar system, in Earth orbit or even landing on Earth could cause pandemonium. Massive challenges to global risk and disaster management capacities could ensue. The SETI community has for some time considered the different parameters of various contact scenarios and the criteria for determining their impact, as well as how to manage and contain the expected risks and impact, which ultimately resulted, among other tools, in the International Academy of Astronautics’ (IAA) 1st SETI Protocol, and a number of declarations that have not been formally adopted. All of these do, however, in any event address only part of the imaginable alternatives, and none have legal force.

SETI is not a mere academic undertaking. The early involvement of lawyers and international agencies is crucial to establishing a widely accepted policy and practice, be it for the regulation of METI, the immediate post-detection phase procedures, or indeed broader issues of human preparedness for contact, and for what comes after. An unprecedented editorial in the 2020 volume of the American Journal of International Law confirmed the widely held conviction that despite the broad acceptance of the IAA SETI Protocol and some references in the existing treaties and agreements about the use of outer space which could apply to contact events, there is no binding legal framework regarding SETI. A full treaty regulating it would make eminent sense, yet not many states might develop an interest in preparing for a scenario that is for many people unlikely to materialise anytime soon. States might be reluctant to divert resources from more pressing areas, such as climate change, famine relief, peacekeeping etc. A few states with the capacity for space exploration could be dominating the efforts, creating the risk that any treaty would not receive sufficient ratifications or political support. Soft-law options, such as the non-binding recommendations previously endorsed by COPUOS on near-Earth objects, or resolutions by the UN General Assembly, might be a smoother path to international agreement but would lack enforceability. The editorial concluded that “[t]he chances of our contact […] with extraterrestrial beings or civilizations may be remote. Yet, […] the risks and impact of such a contact for our human species could be very great – even existential. Consequently, the issues raised by SETI and METI merit the international community’s […] and international lawyers’ […] timely concern and consideration.”

SETI detection protocol development so far has had a clear democracy deficit and needs a stronger basis in society, especially with political decision-makers, not least because the moment detection is communicated to the authorities, they will take over control. Law is a discipline that should be at the forefront of creating a proper governance framework. In the words of former NASA Chief Historian, Dr Steven J Dick, “SETI is way behind the curve when it comes to legal implications of discovering intelligent life”. The revision of existing detection protocols and frameworks cannot be left to the scientific – or commercial – community alone or remain in the black box of classified military planning but must involve democratically legitimised political actors.

This applies even more so if one considers the broader ramifications of a (potential) direct contact, which might ultimately even trigger military responses on behalf of all of humanity. If this may seem fringe to some, it is because humanity has not yet developed a planetary or cosmic species awareness, or because many simply accept the prevailing narrative that any ETI contacted will be either vastly more advanced and powerful and hence impossible to resist, and/or in any event be benign in nature. Neither can be taken for granted. Moreover, in international interhuman relations, unless one side can back up its position with some form of persuasive capital, such as economic or military force, it will stand little chance of shaping the negotiations. There is no reason to think it would be otherwise in interactions with ETI.

Given that reflections about moral persuasions of ETI will by necessity remain one-sided human conjecture until contact is made, the role of legal research in SETI, beyond detection protocol development, should be to shape the global human baseline for future conversations with ETI in the wider sense, or even conflict, rather than speculating on a “cosmic metalaw”. If there is a “Galactic Club” to which humanity as a whole might in time wish to aspire, we should expect to fulfil certain membership criteria and be in a grounded position to decide whether they are compatible, for example, with global human ethical parameters. Dick found that “the possibility of contact is a strong argument that some form of metalaw must be developed in order to deal with interactions with aliens[.]”

The experience of international law has also shown that there is an osmosis effect with domestic jurisdictions: Once created, international law can in certain cases trickle down into and change the domestic system, or develop powers to bind even its creators, the States. It can be expected that such an osmosis effect might also occur in the relationship with ETI, especially in the “Galactic Club” example. Human rights law in particular can serve as a ready guideline for ethical discussions of what humanity might be willing to trade for access to the network. It has so far been conspicuously absent as an avenue of ethics study in the SETI environment. To quote Steven J Dick once more: “Meeting the alien will be an experience we cannot afford to mismanage. In so many ways and more than ever, failure is not an option.”
Humanity at this time has no answers for any of those questions. The time to begin serious efforts to address them is now, when reflections about contact of any kind are entering the scientific and popular mainstream much more than was the case previously, especially following the recent increase in research and governmental attention (and funding) related to Unidentified Aerial/Anomalous Phenomena (UAP).

Aims and premises

SETI@IISL

  • will contribute to laying the legal groundwork for providing guidance to relevant domestic and international stakeholders in government and civil society, regarding the analysis and development of regulatory protocols;
  • will aim to establish a foundation for coordinating a coherent post-contact law-and-ethics framework and a global human species response baseline for contact with ETI, in other words, a human “unilateral metalaw”, as well as
  • preparing global societal impact, risk and response strategies, up to and including, on the one hand, potentially hostile encounters and, on the other, negotiations with ETI in the early post-contact stages, to the extent that these will at all be feasible due to the expected linguistic and cultural barriers, power relationships etc.;
  • will not be restricted to space law, not least because the SETI environment can have ramifications into all areas of law, especially in the context of security, risk and disaster management etc.
  • Post-detection naturally presupposes the fact of contact; the question of whether contact is possible will thus be treated as a given for the working group.
  • The process of signal verification until contact involves a different field of regulatory issues not to be covered prominently, with the exception of METI, which is also in need of coherent regulation, given its potential to produce a disastrous fallout for the human species. The discussions about post-detection regulation in the broader sense will otherwise focus on processes following from detection of a signal, which may include all forms of contact.
  • The working group will not exclude research into legal issues related to contact with UAP, which – always assuming they originate from outer space – can fall under the search for extraterrestrial artefacts (SETA), a recognised sub-discipline of SETI.

Duration

The working group was established for a term of 3 years (2023 – 2026).

Structure

SETI@IISL is led by a convenor and a deputy-convenor, and consists of three thematic clusters:

Cluster 1 – Regulation: Post-detection protocols in the broader sense; METI etc.

Cluster 2 – Negotiation: Development of relations after a peaceful contact etc.

Cluster 3 – Confrontation: Application of humanitarian law in case of a hostile contact etc.

Each cluster operates independently under its own chair, and coordinates with other clusters where thematic overlaps arise. Some members work under more than one cluster. Overall guidance and coordination is provided by the Convenor and Deputy-Convenor.

Work in progress

The Deputy Convenor of SETI@IISL, Andrea Harrington, will present the group’s roadmap to the IISL meeting at the 75th International Astronautical Congress (IAC).

Membership as of 10 July 2024

Michael Bohlander (Convenor)Chair in Global Law and SETI Policy, Durham University www.durham.ac.uk/staff/michael-bohlander/
  Andrea Harrington (Deputy Convenor)    Co-Director of the Institute of Air and Space Law (IASL) Associate Professor of Space Law McGill University, Faculty of Law www.mcgill.ca/law/profs/harrington-andrea
  John Elliott (Chair Cluster 1)  Coordinator of SETI Post Detection Hub Chair of UK SETI Research Network (UKSRN) Member IAASETI PC https://seti.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/
  George Profitiliotis (Chair Cluster 2)  Research Scientist Blue Marble Space Institute of Science www.linkedin.com/in/gprofitiliotis/
  Manuel Ventura (Chair Cluster 3)  Deputy Director of the Australian Defence Force Indo-Pacific Centre for Military Law Adjunct Fellow/Lecturer of international law at Western Sydney University www.westernsydney.edu.au/staff_profiles/uws_profiles/mr_manuel_ventura
  Roser Almenar  Visiting Researcher at the Cañada Blanch Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) www.linkedin.com/in/roseralmenar/
  Michael Bowsher  Barrister at Monckton Chambers, and Visiting Professor at King’s College London www.monckton.com/barrister/michael-bowsher-kc/
  Maddalena Cogorno  Ph.D. in International Law Università degli Studi di Pavia https://www.linkedin.com/in/maddalenacogorno/
  Kathryn Denning  Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology, and STS Program, York University, Toronto, Canada, M3J 1P3 Member IAASETI PC https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5656-5313
  Daniel García San José  Professor of Public International Law University of Seville (Spain) https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/autor?codigo=170520
  Mike Garrett  Sir Bernard Lovell chair of Astrophysics at the University of Manchester, and Director of Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics Chair IAASETI PC https://research.manchester.ac.uk/en/persons/michael.garrett
Halo GarrityTrainee Solicitor www.footanstey.com/our-people/halo-garrity/
  Adam Chase Korbitz  Celejure Consulting METI International (Adv. Council) https://www.facebook.com/Celejure/
  Anne-Sophie Martin  Visiting researcher in international law and space law Sapienza University of Rome https://space4women.unoosa.org/content/2023-mentor-anne-sophie-martin
  Hilding Neilson  Department of Physics & Physical Oceanography, Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador St. John’s NL www.hildingneilson.com/
  Gabriela Radulescu  Ph.D. candidate in the history of science at the Technical University of Berlin on SETI in the Soviet Union and an international context www.linkedin.com/in/gabriela-radulescu-b5516437/
  Rhona Smith  Professor of International Human rights, Newcastle University, UK www.ncl.ac.uk/law/people/profile/rhonasmith.html
  Leslie I. Tennen  Attorney at Law, Sterns and Tennen Member IAASETI PC Lifeboat Foundation Bios: Leslie Tennen, J.D.  
Li Shean TohAssistant Professor School of Pharmacy University of Nottingham www.nottingham.ac.uk/pharmacy/people/lishean.toh
  Jason T Wright  Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics Director, Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center https://sites.psu.edu/astrowright/
 

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