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Navigating the Trade Due Diligence in the Commercial Space Sector

International trade law plays a pivotal role in governing the intricate web of global transactions encompassing goods, services, and information exchange among nations. Export control, a vital aspect of this framework, plays a critical role in protecting essential infrastructure, defense capabilities, and strategic assets from falling into unauthorized hands. In this article, we will delve into the complexities surrounding export control within the space sector, highlighting the essential diligence required by both states and commercial space entities to navigate these intricate waters while balancing the imperatives of economic growth and international collaboration.

Export Control and Space Industry

The space industry is inherently unique, with most of its products serving dual purposes, straddling civil and military applications. From the early days of space exploration, examples like GPS, the launch of Explorer 1 on a Juno Booster (Redstone ballistic missiles), and astronauts with military backgrounds illustrate this duality. In today's space activities, the export of tangible goods is joined by the export of software and technology. Therefore, it is imperative for both sovereign states and commercial space companies to comprehend the impact of trade due diligence, or the implementation and enforcement of export control frameworks, on their missions and international cooperation.

Several international instruments provide the framework for export control, each incorporating either full-scale due diligence clauses or some of its elements. Here are a few examples, particularly relevant for the space sector:

  • The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, for instance, in Article I, binds state parties "not to transfer nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices to any recipient under any circumstances."

  • The Chemical Weapons Convention in its Article VII invites the parties to monitoring and controlling the production and transfer of toxic chemicals and their precursors.

  • The Arms Trade Treaty in Article 3 goes further and asks each State Party to “establish and maintain a national control system to regulate the export of ammunition/munitions fired, launched or delivered”.

In addition to treaties, numerous non-binding mechanisms, like the Wassenaar Arrangement, also play a significant role. The Wassenaar Arrangement operates on principles of transparency and information exchange to assess and minimize risks. Specific information sharing obligations within the Arrangement include providing semi-annual notifications regarding arms transfers, which currently encompass seven categories derived from the UN Register of Conventional Arms. Members are also obliged to report instances of transferring or denying the transfer of certain controlled dual-use items.

Key Aspects of Export Control Laws

Each state formulates its rules for controlling the export of sensitive goods and technology based on international guidelines. To understand these rules practically, it's crucial to focus on key aspects of export control laws. First of all, exporting controlled items requires obtaining a government license. To do so, exporters must accurately classify their product or service, determine its destination, and understand its intended use.

Furthermore, space companies can ensure compliance with export control laws by following a specific due diligence process, which includes:

  • Identifying relevant export control rules.

  • Evaluating technology or products to determine their export control category.

  • Assessing the backgrounds of potential partners, customers, and suppliers.

  • Implementing internal procedures and controls to comply with export control rules.

Challenges and Solutions

This process can be quite challenging at times, especially when deciding whether a license is required. One increasingly common and impactful challenge involves intangible technology transfers, like securely sending instructions between ground and space components of a spacecraft or discussing technical details of a future cubesat over email. Another challenge is on the side of regulators. How do they handle complex and emerging technologies, such as 3D printing, for instance? A third challenge, which is partly linked to the second, is the ever-changing regulations. Export control rules can shift due to changes in national security priorities and international agreements. Staying current with these evolving rules is a tough task, particularly for smaller space companies.

To mitigate these challenges, space companies are advised to:

  • Engage legal experts and stay updated on regulatory changes.

  • Establish robust export control compliance programs.

  • Work closely with export control experts.

  • Collaborate with government agencies to obtain necessary licenses and approvals.

  • Provide training to employees and partners to raise awareness of export control regulations and compliance risks.


To sum up, fostering the responsible and ethical growth of the space sector hinges on the seamless integration of international collaboration with export control regulations. Placing emphasis on transparency and enforcing stringent due diligence practices in trade is not only essential for instilling trust and improving business opportunities but also for maintaining one's standing and facilitating smooth transactions, reducing interruptions related to product deliveries or data sharing. All actors, be they from the public or private sector, must take on essential roles in this collective effort to secure a prosperous and safe future for the worldwide space industry.

The Team @ RespectUs

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