Space, ice, and the final frontiers of international law's universality

Questions of physical space and international law have become prominent with novel extensions in the appropriation of human bodies, the sea, or outer space. New technologies have allowed for the commercialization of outer space, or the increasingly melting Arctic area. These issues are challenging our existing notions of territoriality, ownership, and borders, as well as the claims to international legal universality.

International law currently appears to function in tension with a variety of processes, which it cannot easily control. For instance, we can observe this in the challenge posed by climate change or the human exploration and use of outer space. A more traditional challenge stems from the contradiction between international law’s aspirations to universality and the parochial interests of states.

In this project we aim to address the following themes: the rush for the resources in the “global Arctic”; potential for resource extraction in the outer space; the role of new technologies; and the individual role of States. In particular, we are interested in the current and/or future involvement of individual states such the USA, Luxembourg, Russian Federation, China, and Japan, and the constitution of elements of Customary International Law.

Environmental and ecological concerns do not always coincide with the economic, political and strategic interests of states. International law has yet to respond to both. The international legal response to potential new resources in the Arctic has been mostly connected to interests of ‘ownership’: potential ‘grabs in the Arctic’; the question of territorial sovereignty; and deep seabed mining (and other forms of natural resource exploitation). Our hypothesis is that in order to become more responsive to the novel challenges, international law will have to expand its disciplinary boundaries to accommodate processes beyond human and/or legal control.

Project leader: Elena Cirkovic, University of Helsinki; HSE St.-Petersburg (

Project participants:
Jonathan McDowell, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Timo Koivurova, University of Lapland

Current project expert contributors:
Steven Freeland, Western Sydney University
Darina Petrova, Sciences Po Law School
Pekka Jahunen, Finnish Meteorological Institute Space Research
Pierre Cloutier de Repentigny, University of Ottawa


Previous workshops:  A first workshop on 'Space, ice, and the final frontiers of international law's universality' was organised at the University of Helsinki on 25 September 2018. On 25 March 2019, a second workshop entitled 'International Law and State Responsibility in Territories Beyond National Jurisdiction' was held at the University of Helsinki. This event brought together an international and interdisciplinary group of experts to discuss some of the most challenging new issues in international law and the future of lawmaking.