A new UN-led push to prevent an arms race in outer space has received wide-ranging support and participation from civil society and Member States – including all five permanent members of the Security Council – at talks in Geneva.
The first Open-ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats that’s been meeting all week in the Swiss city, is the result of a UN General Assembly resolution last December, seeking to promote “norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours” among countries already present in the cosmos – or which are planning to have a presence in space.
“The situation has changed dramatically in the last few decades. We have so many space activities there is a growing number of space-faring nations – and even those that are not space-faring are sending their own satellites,” explained Hellmut Lagos, chair of the working group talks.
“There are so many activities and the regulations …are not enough to deal with the different risks and threats to the security of all those activities.”
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— UN Institute for Disarmament Research (@UNIDIR) May 13, 2022
Progress on disarmament is a key priority of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who recently reported on ways to reduce the “risks of misunderstanding and miscalculations” on outer space issues.
Treaty revamp push
An international Outer Space Treaty already exists that forms the basis of international space law.
Its main focus is on the peaceful “exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies…for the benefit and in the interests of all countries…and shall be the province of all mankind”.
In keeping with the optimism of the era surrounding the space race, astronauts are described “as envoys of mankind”, and there is also a nod to today’s concerns over space pollution, with explicit wording that States must avoid the “harmful contamination” of space, the moon and other “celestial bodies”.
Russia, the UK and the US provided the original impetus for the treaty, whose impressive title in full is “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”.
But the Outer Space Treaty is 55 years old and needs updating urgently, to take account of new space-based threats to global security – and the fact that all nations rely on space today for everything from navigation to communication, broadband and finance, explained Mr. Lagos:
“The most basic things that we do in in modern life, they are dependent on these technologies and services that come from space: GPS, critical infrastructure, energy, everything, everything is controlled by space technologies…everyone is becoming increasingly aware of this issue.”
Chilean diplomat Lagos also pointed out that although nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction are banned in the 1967 space accord – “the cornerstone of the international space regime”, in his words – there was no way of knowing about today’s new generation of missile systems that can target satellites.
Equally important, there is no review mechanism of the treaty as there is with other major treaties, Mr. Lagos noted, which is why all Member States need to find “common ground” on new norms, rules and principles, to plug legal gaps that might be exploited by space-faring nations.
To date, China, Indian Russia and the US have reportedly used anti-satellite (ASAT) technology, sparking concerns about attempts to weaponise space – and the fact that an unknown number of fragments may now be hurtling around around earth in low orbit, threatening spacecraft including the International Space Station.
Underlining the increasing number of non-State actors involved in space exploration, Mr. Lagos welcomed the significant number of civil society representatives at the talks in Geneva, and the fact that countries from all regions of the world attended.
“Civil society is extremely important, not only because there are an increasing number of non-State actors in space, but also because their participation in these multilateral processes, they give an additional layer of legitimacy to the result, to the outcome of the process.”
And although global tensions are higher than they’ve been for decades, as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the underlying push for consensus of the working group’s agenda has kept discussions on track, Mr. Lagos insisted.
Last week, the head of Russia’s space agency reportedly confirmed that in response to sanctions over the war in Ukraine, Russia was planning to pull out of the International Space Station.
“It is obvious that the geopolitical context now is really concerning and it has an impact on all the discussions and all the processes all over the world – that does not exclude us,” said Mr. Lagos.
“But we are trying to have a positive momentum in this process at least to try to make progress because it is in everybody’s interest, and so far we have achieved that – we see that there is big engagement and interest in moving things forward.”
The next session of the Working Group is planned for September, where the item will be “current and future threats by States to space systems, and actions, activities and omissions that could be considered irresponsible”.
Next year, the group will take up its item on the preparation of recommendations to the General Assembly.