ASIL 2023 Annual Meeting Recap:  Junk in International Law: Can We Avoid the Oceans’ Fate in Outer Space? (Pt. 1 of 3)

By Charles Bjork

The annual meeting of the American Society of International Law, held each spring in Washington, D.C., usually features at least one panel sponsored by the Space Law Interest Group.  In prior years, some of these panels have focused on the kind of attention-grabbing topics that have inspired generations of Hollywood screenwriters, such as how the nations of the world might respond if scientists determine that an asteroid is on course to strike the Earth and cause catastrophic damage.  The subject of this year’s space law panel was a bit more mundane:  the problem of space junk and what to do about it.  Space junk is defined as any artificial (human-made) object within the Earth’s orbit that no longer serves a useful purpose.  The term encompasses everything from defunct satellites and spacecraft, to the remnants of launch vehicles, to tiny fragments left behind after the disintegration or collision of other pieces of space debris.  Panel members were asked to consider whether, and to what extent, international legal regimes developed to protect marine ecosystems and remediate pollution in the world’s oceans could be applied to address the issue of space junk.        

Image of Earth from satellite

NASA, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The panel consisted of Timothy G. Nelson, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, specializing in international litigation and arbitration; Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, a senior advisor on regulatory and space policy at OneWeb, a satellite telecommunications network based in London; and Andrés Villegas, co-chair of the International Litigation and Arbitration Division at Sygna Partners (Paris) and a former senior legal advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Colombia.  Viva Dadwal, an associate attorney at King & Spalding specializing in international arbitration, served as the moderator.

Dadwal provided a contextual framework for the discussion by sharing some rather alarming statistics comparing the enormous amount of plastic waste that has accumulated in the world’s oceans with the rapid proliferation of space junk orbiting the Earth.  Each year more than 300 million tons of plastics are produced worldwide, and at least 14 million tons of plastic waste end up in the world’s oceans.  Plastics now account for roughly 80 percent of all marine debris, from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.  Unlike organic matter, plastics do not decompose and so will remain present in marine ecosystems indefinitely.  Nevertheless, many commonly used plastics are prone to breaking down over time into smaller and smaller particles, known as micro-plastics.  Of the estimated 50 to 70 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans, the majority of these are micro-plastics.  By 2050, according to some estimates, there may be more plastics in the oceans (by weight) than fish. 

Although space junk is a more recent phenomenon than plastic waste in the oceans, the accumulation of debris orbiting the Earth is no less alarming.  According to models produced by the European Space Agency’s Office of Space Debris, there are currently an estimated 36,500 objects greater than ten centimeters in diameter within the Earth’s orbit.  The volume of smaller space debris is even greater:  an estimated 1 million objects between one and ten centimeters in diameter and an estimated 130 million objects between one millimeter and one centimeter in diameter.  The danger is that repeated collisions of space debris over time could result in a cascade effect, in which larger and larger clouds of accumulated debris will make it increasingly difficult for satellites to operate in Earth’s orbit.  This phenomenon, also known as the “Kessler syndrome,” could, in a worst-case scenario, make it impossible to safely launch new satellites into orbit around the Earth or to safely launch exploratory vehicles into outer space. 

To kick off the discussion, Dadwal quoted from a letter to editor published in the March 10th issue of Science magazine, in which several prominent scientists asserted that, like the high seas before it, the Earth’s orbit is being treated as a global commons, and that the exploitation of what appears to be a free resource obscures the true cost of environmental damage.  The authors of the letter went on to call for international cooperation to address the urgent need to reduce the volume of space debris before the Earth’s orbit suffers the same fate as the world’s oceans.  Dadwal asked Nelson if he agreed with the underlying premise of the scientists who wrote the letter to the editor, namely that the international legal regimes developed to protect the world’s oceans can be applied to remediate environmental damage in space.

Nelson agreed with the underlying premise in principle.  Nevertheless, he emphasized that there are critical differences between the physical properties of space and those of the world’s oceans.  These differences are easily obscured by pop cultural references that equate space travel with maritime navigation.  Long before space exploration became a reality, science fiction writers deployed maritime terminology to describe what are now universally referred to as spaceships.  So ingrained in our popular culture are these maritime metaphors (These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.) that it is tempting for the casual observer to assume that space law can simply adopt the legal paradigms designed to safeguard the oceans.  In practice, Nelson noted, these paradigms must be modified to reflect the profound physical differences between the maritime environment and the space environment.

Foremost among these physical differences is the fact that space debris orbiting the Earth at very high speeds possesses enormous amounts of kinetic energy.  As a result, even debris as small as one centimeter in diameter has the potential to cause catastrophic damage if it collides with a satellite or a space vehicle.  Any new legal regimes developed to address the problem of space junk must take this intrinsic danger into account.  In contrast, human-made maritime debris, known as flotsam and jetsam, poses little risk to travel and shipping on the high seas.  Larger ocean-going vessels can sail through it, and smaller vessels can navigate around it. 

FCIL Eyes on 2021 AALL Annual Meeting

by Marcelo Rodríguez

Like most of you, I attended the 114th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) last week. Given the pandemic, this is the second time that AALL has put together a completely virtual program for its annual meeting. Both virtual conferences have been great and incredibly useful. I really appreciated the opportunity to share experiences, learn from my colleagues and still continue to maintain and even create new connections within AALL.

2021 AALL Annual Meeting Logo. Leading with Wisdom and Insight.
2021 AALL Annual Meeting Logo

This year, our FCIL-SIS was incredibly well represented with two fantastic panels: The Ins and Outs of India Legal Research: Learning How to Find India Primary and Secondary Law and Facing Challenges: Access to Justice in a Global ‘Virtual World’. But if you’re like me, you probably also followed other panels with an eye on how FCIL plays a part in those conversations as well. In this blog post, I want to mention a few of the panels during the Annual Meeting which I believe have an impact on our own FCIL community and the ways in which we can contribute to those conversations as well. These conversations are namely our relationship with technical services in our library institutions; how to secure a new generation of diverse FCIL librarians and Blacks Live Matters as an international rally that should include our international law librarian community. 

Let’s start from the end. Personally, one of the very last panels in the Annual Meeting turned out to be one of the most insightful and interesting ones. Library Infrastructure 101: Technical Services’ Role in Building Your Public Service Foundation and Bridges to Patron Success was a fantastic panel because of the compelling skills of Dawn Smith (Yale Law Library), Alexis Zirpoli (University of Michigan Law Library) and Liz Graham (University of Maryland Law Library) to speak truth to their issues and challenges with the rest of the library team as well as with the larger institutions. I think the struggles of explaining and finding evidence and stats of the importance of technical services in our libraries is similar to the issues we also face when explaining the importance of growing/curating a foreign and international legal collection. If you haven’t, I’d like to invite everyone to watch the recordings of this great and candid discussion. More importantly, I think as FCIL librarians we need to take it upon ourselves to reach out to our technical services counterparts within our institutions and create bridges within our teams. 

A couple of panels did touch upon the need to diversify law librarianship and how to create those spaces and pipelines. This has been a recurrent theme at AALL over the past few annual meetings, and it is encouraging to witness the persistence of these conversations. Our FCIL community needs to also play its part to amplify historically marginalized voices not only here in the United States, but also abroad. One of the most impactful things we can do in our profession is to pave the way for minority law librarians to consider FCIL as a viable career path. What are the obstacles preventing minority people from joining our profession? What are the issues not allowing them to remain in our ranks, and grow and enrich our work? There is no doubt that without their voices and experiences our profession as law librarians, including FCIL, is missing an incredibly important worldview, and we might not be part of conversations which will directly impact our work. As FCIL librarians, we need to be aware and active on these struggles and how we can find alternative and creative solutions. 

Black Lives Matters is a good example of a movement that speaks to the struggles of black people in the United States and that it has grown into an international rally speaking to discrimination and racism in other parts of the world. As legal professionals dedicated to collecting, accessing, analyzing and curating foreign and international legal materials, we must delve into these topics as well and understand how they impact our work and our users. Earlier this year, Sue Silverman wrote a very eloquent blog post about this issue called, Confronting Racism when Teaching International and Foreign Law Research. Last Thursday’s panel called Legal Research in the Era of Black Lives Matters spoke very powerfully to real challenges and the intersections with personal stories. I was particularly impressed with the compelling intervention of Marjorie E. Crawford from Rutgers Law Library. Highly recommended, in case you haven’t seen it yet!

If you’re wondering what’s going to happen next year, I have a link for you: Ideas Scale. Please submit your ideas and vote for others. The more we actively participate in the process, the more these annual meetings will speak to our conversations. 

See you all in Denver 2022!

ASIL Annual Meeting 2021: BLM and International Human Rights Law: The Challenge of Systemic Racism

By Sue Silverman

This interdisciplinary panel on the Black Lives Matter movement and international human rights law examined the problem of racism from four perspectives: how racism manifests itself in economic and social data; how racist structures affect us psychosocially; the role of and shortcomings of international law and the “law” writ large in addressing acts of racism; and how international human rights law could be operationalized in legal and advocacy efforts.  

Professor Anna Spain Bradley, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UCLA and Vice President of ASIL, reminded the audience what racism is and how it manifests itself: racism appears in economics, political rights, health disparities, and as threats to national security.  Racism is demonstrated through acts of ethnic cleansing, segregation, apartheid, and colonialism. Racism’s form is structural, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized. The law however – whether it is international human rights law such as the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or federal constitutional law – does not reflect this global understanding of racism.  The CERD focuses on racial discrimination, not racism per se, and links discrimination to an act which in turn is linked to a purpose or an effect.  At the federal level, the Fifth Amendment requires proof of intent to discriminate and that the intent was a motivating factor in the decision to discriminate.  These limited definitions often fall short of addressing the problem of racism when it occurs.  Professor Spain Bradley pointed to the arrest of Georgia state Representative Park Cannon just days before the conference as an example of how these definitions fall short.  The world may look at what happened to Rep. Park Cannon and call it racism, but the law is not equipped to address it as such. How do we, under the law, adjudicate what is right and wrong, and how can we account for Rep. Park Cannon’s human rights? Here is where the system, as Professor Spain Bradley put it, gets “stuck.”    

2021 ASIL Virtual Annual Meeting

It is not only when addressing acts against individuals that the law appears ill-equipped to address the problem of racism.  As Reginald Noël, an economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, laid out, racism presents itself in nearly every measurement of economic success.  From the wealth and income gaps to rates of home ownership, marriage, and unemployment, we see stark evidence of racism in our society.  We know these disparities are rooted in structural racism and as Noël noted, the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed how white privilege inhibits movements towards true equity.  Those who have higher incomes and inherited wealth are not inclined to change the structures that benefit them, even if this means the continuing oppression of black, brown, and indigenous people.  

To understand the insidiousness of structural racism, it helps to understand the psychosocial underpinnings of racism.  Professor Jordan Robert Axt explained how just living within the context of a racist environment where we are constantly exposed to messages about structural disparity and inequality automatically reshapes our mind. This is made evident in experiments measuring implicit bias. Studies such as Project Implicit, of which Professor Axt is the Director of Data & Methodology, demonstrate that while individuals may explicitly reject racism, their automatic assumptions – i.e., their implicit bias – may still counter their conscious beliefs.  How then do we change individuals’ implicit (and explicit) biases?  While the focus used to be on changing the minds of individuals, studies have shown this to be exceedingly difficult. Rather, if we want to change an individual’s biases, we must change the context within which individual biases are fostered. That is, we must focus on institutions, not individual minds.  

How do we change institutions? One way is by changing the norms within which they operate.  Professor Axt noted the bidirectional relationship between perceptions of social norms and changes in attitudes and behaviors – people look to legislation and institutions to infer what social norms are acceptable.  Here is where international law may play an important role. As Professor Bradley Spain noted, while international law may not force nations to act in a certain way, it does set norms. By changing norms, we can change minds, and by changing minds, we can change behaviors. International law, in setting norms for how nations can and should respect the human rights of individuals living within their jurisdiction, can influence individual expectations and ideas about what constitutes a just society.       

Professor Ahilan Arulanantham, a human rights lawyer and professor at UCLA, explained how advocates might operationalize international human rights treaties such as CERD in their fight against racism.  While CERD has not been adopted into federal law, there are steps that the Biden Administration could take to incorporate CERD into federal acts.  For example, President Biden could issue an executive order requiring all federal agencies to act in compliance with CERD.  Professor Arulanantham also noted how local governments can adopt (and have adopted) international human rights treaties such as CEDAW and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  We can also press for legislation that draws from CERD and other human rights treaties.   Professor Arulanantham noted that despite its inefficiencies, CERD is more expansive in its definition of racial discrimination than federal constitutional law. Though imperfect, it is still a standard that the United States at the federal and local levels could reach for as we strive to achieve justice and accountability for acts of racism. 

The overriding message from this brilliant panel of experts is if we want change, we must change structures and institutions; individual minds are not enough.  Towards the end of this session, Professor Bradley Spain asked all of us to ask ourselves: where do people get “stuck” in our fields and is there anything we can do to push things forward?  Whether we are scholars or advocates in international law, constitutional law, or any legal or non-legal field, we must examine the contexts and structures within which we live and operate and how can we change these structures to create a more just and equitable society. 

Join Us, Tomorrow, 01/21: Webinar on The Origins and Progression of the #ENDSARS2020 Movement in Nigeria

Please join the Black Law Librarians Special Interest Section (BLL-SIS) and the Foreign, Comparative and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) on tomorrow, January 21, 2021 at 11 am-12:30 pm Central for a webinar on the origins and development of Nigeria’s #ENDSARS2020 movement, including information on government responses to the movement and background on police brutality in Nigeria.

The webinar will feature panelists Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa (Chair, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission; Former member of the Nigerian House of Representatives) and Femi Cadmus (Associate Dean and Director of the J. Michael Goodson Law Library, Duke Law; Former AALL President).

Register now at https://tinyurl.com/fcilsisendsars!

Join Us: Webinar on The Origins and Progression of the #ENDSARS2020 Movement in Nigeria

Please join the Black Law Librarians Special Interest Section (BLL-SIS) and the Foreign, Comparative and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) on January 21, 2021 at 11 am-12:30 pm Central for a webinar on the origins and development of Nigeria’s #ENDSARS2020 movement, including information on government responses to the movement and background on police brutality in Nigeria.

The webinar will feature panelists Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa (Chair, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission; Former member of the Nigerian House of Representatives) and Femi Cadmus (Associate Dean and Director of the J. Michael Goodson Law Library, Duke Law; Former AALL President).

Register now at https://tinyurl.com/fcilsisendsars!

Join Us: Webinar on The Origins and Progression of the #ENDSARS2020 Movement in Nigeria

Please join the Black Law Librarians Special Interest Section (BLL-SIS) and the Foreign, Comparative and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) on January 21, 2021 at 11 am-12:30 pm Central for a webinar on the origins and development of Nigeria’s #ENDSARS2020 movement, including information on government responses to the movement and background on police brutality in Nigeria.

The webinar will feature panelists Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa (Chair, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission; Former member of the Nigerian House of Representatives) and Femi Cadmus (Associate Dean and Director of the J. Michael Goodson Law Library, Duke Law; Former AALL President).

Register now at https://tinyurl.com/fcilsisendsars!

Join Us: Webinar on The Origins and Progression of the #ENDSARS2020 Movement in Nigeria

Please join the Black Law Librarians Special Interest Section (BLL-SIS) and the Foreign, Comparative and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) on January 21, 2021 at 11 am-12:30 pm Central for a webinar on the origins and development of Nigeria’s #ENDSARS2020 movement, including information on government responses to the movement and background on police brutality in Nigeria.

The webinar will feature panelists Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa (Chair, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission; Former member of the Nigerian House of Representatives) and Femi Cadmus (Associate Dean and Director of the J. Michael Goodson Law Library, Duke Law; Former AALL President).

Register now at https://tinyurl.com/fcilsisendsars!

FCIL-SIS Call for Nominations for Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect and Secretary/Treasurer

The Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) of AALL is seeking your leadership and vision!

The Nominations Committee welcomes submissions for Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect and Secretary/Treasurer of the SIS for 2021. The position of Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect requires a three-year commitment, as Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect, Chair, and Immediate Past Chair, and will be expected to attend the AALL annual meeting the first two years.  The position of Secretary/Treasurer requires a two-year commitment, and the holder of this office is expected to attend the AALL Annual Meeting both years.  More information is available in the FCIL-SIS Bylaws.

Please consider putting yourself or one of our outstanding colleagues forward for these important positions. If nominating someone other than yourself, please communicate first with that person to ensure their interest in serving.

Nominations will be accepted through December 18.  Results will be announced in the spring newsletter.

Please submit your nominations and any questions to:

Gabriela Femenia, Chair, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee
Amy Flick, Member, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee
Kurt Carroll, Member, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee

We look forward to hearing from you!

FCIL-SIS Call for Nominations for Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect and Secretary/Treasurer

The Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) of AALL is seeking your leadership and vision!

The Nominations Committee welcomes submissions for Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect and Secretary/Treasurer of the SIS for 2021. The position of Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect requires a three-year commitment, as Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect, Chair, and Immediate Past Chair, and will be expected to attend the AALL annual meeting the first two years.  The position of Secretary/Treasurer requires a two-year commitment, and the holder of this office is expected to attend the AALL Annual Meeting both years.  More information is available in the FCIL-SIS Bylaws.

Please consider putting yourself or one of our outstanding colleagues forward for these important positions. If nominating someone other than yourself, please communicate first with that person to ensure their interest in serving.

Nominations will be accepted through December 18.  Results will be announced in the spring newsletter.

Please submit your nominations and any questions to:

Gabriela Femenia, Chair, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee
Amy Flick, Member, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee
Kurt Carroll, Member, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee

We look forward to hearing from you!

FCIL-SIS Call for Nominations for Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect and Secretary/Treasurer

The Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) of AALL is seeking your leadership and vision!

The Nominations Committee welcomes submissions for Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect and Secretary/Treasurer of the SIS for 2021. The position of Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect requires a three-year commitment, as Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect, Chair, and Immediate Past Chair, and will be expected to attend the AALL annual meeting the first two years.  The position of Secretary/Treasurer requires a two-year commitment, and the holder of this office is expected to attend the AALL Annual Meeting both years.  More information is available in the FCIL-SIS Bylaws.

Please consider putting yourself or one of our outstanding colleagues forward for these important positions. If nominating someone other than yourself, please communicate first with that person to ensure their interest in serving.

Nominations will be accepted through December 18.  Results will be announced in the spring newsletter.

Please submit your nominations and any questions to:

Gabriela Femenia, Chair, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee
Amy Flick, Member, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee
Kurt Carroll, Member, FCIL-SIS Nominating Committee

We look forward to hearing from you!