By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Space security governance has been under stress for some time. Growing space security threats in the form of counter-space capabilities including kinetic kill anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are a new reality, and if not halted, these developments could eventually make space inaccessible.
A number of resolutions were taken up in the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee earlier in the week, including a U.K.-sponsored resolution (with 36 co-sponsors), “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors”; one co-sponsored by Russia, China and the United States, “Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities”; and additional resolutions, “Further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space,” and “No first placement of weapons in outer space.”
The U.K.’s co-sponsored resolution (A/C.1/76/L.52), part of the Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) agenda, to establish a new U.N. Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on outer space security, was voted through on November 1. The resolution found overwhelming support with 163 states voting for it, eight against and nine abstentions. China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia were among the countries that voted against the resolution. India, Israel, and Pakistan were among those that abstained from voting.
With the wide-ranging support for the U.K.-led resolution at the First Committee, it can be expected to be approved next month in the U.N. General Assembly. Not much change is expected between the First Committee and the General Assembly vote.
The U.K.-led resolution is a follow-up to last year’s U.K. resolution 75/36 on “reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors,” which kickstarted a new debate about what constitutes threatening and destabilizing space behavior. The U.K. also made it clear that the threats are not to be limited to behavior in space alone, but could be anywhere including ground infrastructure, signals, and data links which together constitute the space infrastructure. As the U.K.’s minister responsible for space, James Cleverly, noted, such threatening behavior needs to be addressed because of the possibilities of miscalculation, leading to escalation and conflict. The U.K. stated that the current resolution is an effort to ensure that an open international order extends to outer space as well. Interestingly, the U.K. also noted the importance of an inclusive process to deal with the “threats to our collective security, and prevent an arms race in outer space.”
The large support base for the U.K.’s resolution is remarkable and speaks to the extensive outreach that the U.K. has undertaken over the past few years. But the key task is to bring the naysayers into supporting the work of the OEWG. Nevertheless, the current momentum holds promise to build something more concrete in maintaining space as a peaceful domain and act in a manner that would “reduce threats to space systems in order to maintain outer space as a peaceful, safe, stable and sustainable environment, free from an arms race and conflict.” The resolution further seeks to establish “channels of direct communication, including for the management of perceptions of threats,” urging that these efforts be carried out so that it is beneficial to all.
According to the resolution, the OEWG will meet in Geneva for two five-day sessions in 2022 and 2023. Participation is open to intergovernmental institutions, various departments and organizations of the United Nations, and other organizations that have received invitations to participate in the discussions as observers. Commercial players and civil society members are also allowed to take part in the sessions, in line with standard practices. The chair of the OEWG could also hold intersessional consultative meetings with interested stakeholders that would facilitate exchange of ideas and views on issues of interest to the OEWG.
The OEWG in these sessions will review existing international agreements and normative frameworks that relate to threats in outer space from state behavior; take stock of “current and future threats by States to space systems, and actions, activities and omissions that could be considered irresponsible; make recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors relating to threats by States to space systems, including, as appropriate, how they would contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments, including on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.” A report from the OEWG sessions will be submitted to the General Assembly at its 78th session in 2023-2024. As in the case of the work of the Conference on Disarmament and other disarmament forums, the work of the OEWG will be conducted based on the consensus principle.
There is a broader recognition among the policy community that while the OEWG is being established via the U.N. General Assembly route, it is being located in Geneva in an effort at rekindling the disarmament and arms control work there. This is important given the stagnant nature of engagement at the Conference on Disarmament. The OEWG could possibly revitalize the overall spirit within the conference, including on issues such as PAROS.
It is also noteworthy that the First Committee resolution on transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) was co-sponsored by China, Russia, and the United States. As David Edmondson, the U.K.’s policy lead on space security and advanced threats, commented, “there’s an understanding that, if we don’t get this right, we wreck the space environment.” Given the generally worsening security situation, including in outer space, there is a broader recognition of the need to get something done, irrespective of philosophical disagreements among key states on the challenges and solutions
The U.K’s resolution could have the effect of bringing every key state to engage in a cooperative arrangement, in which at least some baby steps are agreed to, gradually progressing from voluntary measures to developing more binding legal rules. But the language of the resolution — that it will make “recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors” that could then “contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments, including on the prevention of an arms race in outer space” – goes only half-way for those who insist on legal measures for space security governance. Still, that there is a focus on state behavior rather than mere technologies is also significant. Also noteworthy is that resolutions on both the PAROS and the TCBMs were adopted unanimously. The United States had previously abstained or voted “no” on the PAROS resolution because it included the Russia-China draft treaty, the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT).
Overall, there appears to be a positive momentum on space security governance and arms control in space. There are genuine concerns that if steps are not taken to halt the current trend toward space weaponization, space could become an active warfighting domain, to the detriment of every single nation, whether they have active satellites in orbit or not. It remains to be seen how the discussions might proceed, but the OEWG work in the next two years could possibly narrow the divide between the varying state agendas being pursued in the space security realm.
This article originally appeared in The Diplomat.