I'm writing a story about a team of rebels and pirates who band together to steal a resource-rich moon from a solar system governed by a corrupt, oppressive regime.

Some world context:

  • The moon has abundant natural flora and fauna, but no intelligent life
  • It orbits an uninhabited gas giant in the system
  • The corrupt regime has been mining other moons for resources, but they are now running dry
  • The Universal Planetary Council (the interstellar equivalent of the UN) has banned mining the resources of this moon because it will cause irreversible ecological damage
  • The corrupt regime is ignoring the ban and has begun building mining infrastructure on the moon
  • The rebels plan to move the moon to a nearby system without causing catastrophic damage to the ecosystem
  • The nearby system is populated by the extremely wealthy, and ruled by a government whose main concern is catering to these wealthy families
  • One of those wealthy families is funding the rebels' project
  • The wealthy system has much more resources than the corrupt regime, however, the corrupt regime is a bit of a 'mad dog' and likely to act irresponsibly and unpredictably
  • It is rumoured that the corrupt regime has been using the resources to build weapons, but there is no definitive evidence of this

My question is this:

In an interstellar equivalent of The Hague's International Criminal Court, would the rebels stand a chance against the corrupt government?

If interstellar laws were largely the same as international laws today, albeit scaled up, how would they apply in this scenario?

Could the rebels' plot be seen as an invasion and conquest by a sovereign power, or would it be more likely they would be seen as criminals who are now being harboured by the nearby system?

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    $\begingroup$ Unless it is a tiny moon or the planet it orbits is uninhabited, it would probably rate as a crime against humanity and attempted genocide of the population of that planet. Look up some questions on what would happen if earth's moon disappeared on this site. $\endgroup$ – Cyrus May 5 '19 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ How do you mean "thriving moon", is it in some way alive or inhabited by lower organisms? Livestock perhaps or a source of food? $\endgroup$ – Tantalus' touch. May 5 '19 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ You are of course aware that "international law" does not exist as such; it is simply a collection of norms of good behavior which sovereigns choose to respect most of the time. The use of the word "government" in the context of international law is, uh, dubious; international law is concerned with the relations between sovereign powers, and makes no distinction between government and people. Rebels and pirates are not a sovereign power and therefore they are not subjects of international law; if thieves and pirates steal something from a sovereign power, that's a police matter. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 5 '19 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. It appears obvious that we have no existing laws that would govern the theft of a moon (nevermind the potentially catastrophic gravitational effects that would have), so the question is technically unanswerable. Would it make more sense to redefine the question in terms of our world? "What law would apply if ISIS took a chunk of land from Turkey?" then apply that rationale? $\endgroup$ – JBH May 5 '19 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ Also, can the government(s) of the affected planet do anything about this? Should they be considered a superpower like the U.S., Russia, or China (somebody who would ignore law and simply beat the snot out of the rebels) or a smaller nation that must depend on larger nations to help resolve the problem? (I'm wondering if Russia's problems with Chechnya and the international outcries over the matter might be exemplary.) $\endgroup$ – JBH May 5 '19 at 18:03

Some of the central principles underlying laws of war are:

  • Wars should be limited to achieving the political goals that started the war (e.g., territorial control) and should not include unnecessary destruction.

  • Wars should be brought to an end as quickly as possible.

  • People and property that do not contribute to the war effort should be protected against unnecessary destruction and hardship.

To this end, laws of war are intended to mitigate the hardships of war by:

  • Protecting both combatants and non-combatants from unnecessary suffering.

  • Safeguarding certain fundamental human rights of persons who fall into the hands of the enemy, particularly prisoners of war, the wounded and sick, children, and civilians.

  • Facilitating the restoration of peace.

Given that you are dealing with rebels against a corrupt regime, you have an interesting situation.

First, even if the regime is corrupt, so long as they publically toe enough of the acceptable interstellar lines and rules, then the majority of internal public opinion will not be against the regime. So long as it doesn't affect them personally, the majority will still think "It's not that bad", even if they know that the regime is corrupt.

Second, in kind with the first point, external opinion will likely also not be (publicly) against the regime. In fact many others will probably privately approve of the ruthlessness and methods of the corrupt regime, so long as it is not also incompetent.

This is because humans have an incredible capacity of ignoring things that don't affect them directly, much like the circumstances in certain modern countries today.

Next, the rebels may be viewed as an internal only problem, and thus not fall under the aegis of interstellar law. After all, interstellar law typically only applies to actions taken between star systems.

As such, the corrupt regime will probably try to spin the public relations to cast the rebels in the light of thieves, and may even try to use interstellar law to get allies to assist them in the capture of the rebels.

Last, the corrupt regime will only stick to the laws of war if there is someone watching who they can't get rid of and whom can hold them publically accountable. Also, that assumes that the corrupt regime isn't simply willing to pay the penalty for breaking the law and calling it a day until the next atrocity or goof up by donations else takes the heat off of them. They will probably try to secretly eliminate the rebels first.

The most likely way for the laws of war to be applied would be if someone (perhaps the hero?) has a significant identity which would cause more problems than it is worth if he died or got involved... AND if the conflict became a public spectacle somehow. If the regime would lose face, or alliances, or some other material or immaterial resource or thing of value, then they might consider following the rules.

Again, the situation would have to cost the corrupt regime more than they are willing to pay before they will follow public convention. And they still might go for revenge if they can get away with it sneakily.

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Acts of war are done by governments or their representatives. Some people are using it metaphorically, as in war on drugs or similar concepts, but at best that is public relations, at worst it is deliberately blurring core concepts of international law. So you might talk about bandits, or unlawful combatants, or the like. (Of course unlawful combatant was itself introduced to stretch international law to the breaking point or beyond.)

Imagine somebody took a suction dredger and decided to physically steal an island, by taking it on board.

  • Damage to property.
  • Mining without the necessary permits.
  • Dangerous interference with traffic.
  • Environmental crimes.
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a team of rebels and pirates who band together to steal a resource-rich moon from a solar system governed by a corrupt, oppressive regime.

First thing : corrupt and oppressive regimes do not care about laws.

If you take something they want from these guys, they'll come for you, and they won't be bringing lawyers, just guns, knifes, a blowtorch and a pair of pliers. :-)

How would you apply the laws of war to this scenario?

Whose laws ?

On Earth with a mere 2000+ years of written law we'd probably take about a month for the dang lawyers just to agree which courts would hear the multiple cases to decide who gets to decide what laws apply. It would take them years (but they'd get rich on the fees !).

What your world's laws are and how convoluted they are is up to you. If e.g. the Emperor says "find them, skin them and put their heads on spikes in every city", that is the de facto law.

Would the theft of the moon be classed as an invasion and conquest of the corrupt government's territory? Could it be construed as an act of war?

It could be construed any number of ways, but the net result if the same. First you catch them and then (if by some miracle they're still alive) you put them on trial.

You could easily end up with a special court being set up by all interested parties to decide their fate. It would be classes as whatever the victors decide is expedient. In formal law you would need to know the excruciating details of the law to work out what they can be charged with.

At the end of the day there is always the good old stand-by "terrorism". Given you describe them as "rebels" there are probably laws already in existence in your world that would make practically anything they do illegal. Given your world has this oppressive whatever, I imagine the penalty for rebels going to the library to return books is probably death by torture.

If so, who would be the aggressor, the rebels, or the sympathetic system that now has the moon within its territory?

Terrorists = rebels

Sympathetic system = target for diplomacy, trade embargoes, war threats, the odd arrest on trumped up charges of their citizens for "spying" etc. The "sympathetic system" would not be sympathetic because this could end in a war and who needs these guys anyway ?

Aggressor = depends who you ask. It's always the other guy.

Result : after "diplomatic" work the "rebels" are extradited to face charges of "treason" under an agreed special court set up specifically to rubber stamp a life sentence on all involved and avoid the need for ongoing sanctions, war and the disruption of trade. Typically some quasi-neutral state will act as "middle man" in all this.

It's what always happens here when the blowtorch and pliers option isn't easy to do.

Alternative scenario :

The states involved decide to deal very quietly with the "mysterious" assassinations of the culprits on their soil. There will turn out to be "no leads" in the investigations. Everyone will know and no one (important) will care and business will go on as usual after a bit of media waffle, maybe a book or ten and some movies.

This also happens here quite a lot.

For more alternatives, read your 20th century history. :-)

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