Evil empire's war crimes

Along time ago in a galaxy far, far away ... child soldiers, super weapons, blockades preventing humanitarian relief and the targeting of civilians depicted the brutality of life in outer space.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, international researchers are using the Star Wars film franchise to make a serious point about the laws that govern both conflict in space and war on Earth. ‘‘I mean, it’s a great movie ... but boy, there are a lot of war crimes going on,’’ says law professor Dale Stephens.

Volunteers and lawyers with the Australian Red Cross – which Adelaide-based Stephens advises – have probed George Lucas’ epic adventure to illustrate how these laws work. International humanitarian law sets out the rules of armed conflict. According to the Red Cross, the law’s main purpose is to maintain humanity in armed conflicts, saving lives and reducing suffering.

Five main treaties apply to space, including the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement. These treaties set out rules about sovereignty (the Moon, for example, can’t be claimed by a country); forbid weapons of mass destruction in space; and provide guidelines for how states treat each other. Researchers analysed Star Wars against all these laws to find The Empire’s deployment of space station and super weapon, The Death Star, was a war crime; Darth Vader’s use of ‘‘The Force’’ to interrogate Han Solo amounted to torture; and blockading the planet of Naboo was unlawful. An online quiz takes people through the issues. ‘‘As laws in space are an area of ever-increasing importance, we felt that we would take something that so many people are very familiar with – Star Wars – and show how Earth’s international humanitarian law would apply to that universe,’’ said Adelaide university law student and Australian Red Cross volunteer Scott Hanel.

Stephens, the director of the University of Adelaide’s research unit on military law and ethics, said commercial satellites tracked Ukrainian refugees in real time and provided evidence for war crime investigations into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Stephens said states and companies which used their own satellites to provide military information to Ukraine did so at a risk. ‘‘Russia is not targeting satellites at the moment, but there is a strong legal argument that if a third party is providing information about Russian troop movements to Ukraine, that Russia has a legal right to target that satellite.’’

Stephens said the law about the military use of space was relatively clear, prohibiting the use of force and armed attacks, but legal questions remained in an environment where countries continued experimenting with weapon systems and satellites. Jamming a signal or using lasers to blind a satellite could be judged a use of force, he said. ‘‘If it’s a use of force, then the other side has a right to respond with counter-measures.’’ The question of what is lawful is the focus of a research project called the Woomera Manual led by Stephens and academics from the United Kingdom and the United States. ‘‘The question that we are asking in this project is where are the lines drawn, what is a line that can’t be crossed and if it is crossed, what are the lawful responses ...’’

Author: Tammy Mills

This article was first published in The Sunday Age on 3 July 2022.

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