contact with extraterrestrial intelligence

Take Me to Your Lawyer: The Legal Aspects of Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligence

It is statistically unlikely that humans are the only intelligent civilization in the universe. Nothing about the nature of other species that may exist out there will be known until contact is made beyond a radio signal from space, the likes of which can really only prove the originating civilization existed at the time the message was originally sent.

Contact with extraterrestrial intelligence may occur tomorrow, in a hundred years, or never. Although according to some, it may have already happened at some point decades, if not centuries, or even millennia ago.

In any event, open and direct contact will be a high-risk scenario for humanity. It may be peaceful or hostile. Relying on the altruism of aliens and the hope that their intentions will be benign is wishful thinking. Thus, in the context of law with relation to extraterrestrial contact, we must consider moving toward identifying as one planetary species and developing a global consensus on how to respond in either scenario. Such concepts are the essence of my forthcoming book, Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Human Law.

The current debate over UAP involves the question of whether the United States government or others across the world are in possession of craft and/or their crew of non-human origin. It is a discussion that involves the collection of data by governments regarding the maneuvering and acceleration capabilities of UAP, as well as claims of reverse engineering, alleged cover-ups, and more.

By contrast, traditional SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) only looks for signals beyond the atmosphere and tends to steer away from the UAP question out of fear of losing scientific funding if it veered into what some perceive as a disreputable “lunatic fringe” (even though the accepted sub-discipline of the search for extraterrestrial artifacts, or SETA, easily overlaps conceptually with UAP studies).

Law gets in everywhere

However, the law does not play a prominent role in either scenario. For classic SETI, it is mostly about the regulation of so-called post-detection protocols (i.e., how to make sure a radio signal is the real thing, who to call once that has been confirmed by the scientific community, and who gets to tell the world the news and coordinate a potential response). Some SETI people do not care about such niceties as democratic decision-making and go ahead on their own to send messages to ETI (METI), even though the self-professed aim of METI is to bring about a situation in which humanity will be unable to maintain control.

Suffice it to say that there is so far no legally binding convention, treaty, or other agreement on any of this. SETA could raise additional questions of rights to exploitation, property, etc., of any artifacts found. Whether current space law is sufficient to regulate these issues seems doubtful. For the UAP community, the apparent superiority of the craft/phenomena does not naturally lend itself to ruminations about establishing legal relationships with entities who can run rings around us.

There is nothing to fear

Across both camps, we find pervasive conventional wisdom about how vastly advanced civilizations must have passed through the threshold of violence and aggression as forms of interaction within their own species, emerging on the other side as inherently peaceful. Otherwise, their self-destruction would have occurred long ago. Hence, when moving out into the universe, they would be taking this attitude with them, or perhaps they would abide by some sort of “Prime Directive” (à la Star Trek) and strictly avoid contact with less advanced species.

However, neither of these notions is based on reliable evidence. Quite the contrary: human history teaches us how technological and cultural advancement for millennia has not weaned us off the use of violence to achieve nefarious goals. Equally, if UAP is indeed of extraterrestrial origin, then they do not appear to abide by a prime directive of non-exposure to other civilizations. The situation remains confusing because, as Jacques Vallée has pointed out, “if the aliens were simply ‘hostile’ in the first-order sense of the word, they could have taken over our planet a long time ago.”

However, even if UAPs are of extraterrestrial origin and not merely exploratory space probes, operating with no alien mandate or technological capacity to enter conversations about establishing long-term interspecies relationships, their existence, and the possibility of future contact with (other) species arriving from space in the classical scenario are not mutually exclusive.

Lawyers, scientists, and Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Most lawyers still do not understand the science of SETI and why the law should engage with it. In turn, SETI scientists may have, at best, only a glancing knowledge of the legal issues around SETI; that is even more true regarding the issues that may arise from direct contact.

There is a need to reach a baseline of mutual understanding about the issues that will need to be determined in the event of contact. This can include extremely speculative hypotheses surrounding hostile contact on the one hand and the accession to a network of civilizations, or “Galactic Club,” on the other. These may test fundamental human ethical and legal values in the areas of the law of armed conflict and human rights law.

“…and what happens if they do become hostile?”

We need to analyze the problems arising from the potential for hostile contact based on the principles of humanity’s inter-human international and domestic law and how they can be applied to an interspecies conflict.

What would, for example, the liability of humans be under the four core crimes–genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression–as far-future scenarios arising as a potential consequence of human space exploration and the search for species on other planets that humans might one day visit? Would we reach for the ultimate weapon of mass destruction and destroy an entire alien culture as a response of first choice if the survival of the human species was at stake? Would ETI be liable in Earth’s courts for their aggressive actions and be granted fair trial rights, or would we treat them as entities without recognition of legal person status?

How can or should we prepare for hostile contact in practical terms? This includes topics such as current technology and the link between future weapons development and deep space strategy. The requirements stemming from the strategic parameters of deep space warfare against a non-human enemy, as opposed to mere orbital operations between humans around Earth and the Moon, especially distances, speeds, and celestial mechanics, would be unlike those in any theater of battle humanity has experienced so far.

How could peaceful relationships with ETI evolve? Are the United Nations a model that might be carried over in terms of a prospective interspecies environment? What are our shared moral values as expressed, for example, in international human rights law, and what would we be willing to trade to get access to technology to end global food and energy scarcity or avert the dire consequences of climate change?

Time for realism

These questions still await definitive answers. For now, their serious consideration will also require more evidence that most humans- particularly their political and military leaders- would accept as a sufficient basis for action and the allocation of significant funding. However, if there is anything the UAP debate teaches us, it is that humanity cannot afford to wait much longer before we begin to proactively address the conundrum of eventual contact with an alien species.

We all hope that if contact happens, it will be peaceful and advance humanity on its path toward assuming its place among its neighbors in the cosmos. Until then, the old adage applies: “Si vis pacem, para bellum.”

Michael Bohlander is the Chair of Global Law and SETI Policy at Durham University, United Kingdom. His forthcoming book, Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Human Law, will be released later this year.