By Nivedita Raju and Dr Wilfred Wan
In the past decade, developments in space, including the rise of new capabilities targeting space assets, have increased the domain’s relevance to peace and security and heightened the potential for armed conflict in space. At the same time, space-based systems such as communications satellites have become critical to the daily lives of much of the world’s population. Damage to or disruption of space assets could thus have serious and widespread ramifications.
However, these ramifications would not be felt equally on earth. Their nature and severity would depend on people’s access to and reliance on space-enabled services. For instance, developing states and vulnerable populations may be particularly at risk because humanitarian relief operations (which rely heavily on earth-observation, communications and navigation satellite services) would find it difficult to carry out needs assessments and deliver emergency relief. Gender could be a further determining factor, as roles, behaviours, opportunities and relationships associated with a gender identity can affect who benefits from these services and how they benefit.
Amid ongoing multilateral discussions on space security, there have been only limited efforts to ‘assess the possible differentiated impacts of [space] threats’. The need to address this was recognized in United Nations General Assembly resolution 76/231 on ‘reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours’ in 2021. The resolution also mentions the ‘importance of the full involvement and equal participation of women and men’ in discussions on reducing such threats, as women remain under-represented as diplomats and policymakers in the field of international security.
A new UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on further practical measures to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS), which meets in November this year, could be an opportunity to drive progress. Ahead of this meeting, this essay seeks to unpack the significance of gender in the space security context, while proposing an agenda for states to consider as they look to incorporate gender perspectives in space security.
Multilateral discussions on space security governance
Despite widespread recognition of the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of a space arms race and general agreement about the urgency of addressing space threats, states have not made significant progress on mitigating those threats. The UN Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours, which convened in 2022 and 2023, ended its work without managing to adopt a consensus report even on procedural issues. Nevertheless, the OEWG process offered some positive signs, such as the engagement of a diverse group of states, a number of exchanges on substantive issues, and multiple joint statements, including one delivered by thePhilippines on behalf of a group of 34 states proposing elements on which states could reach consensus for further multilateral discussion.
Many states at the OEWG in 2022–23 stressed the important civilian uses of space systems. These civilian uses need to be protected in order to limit the human costs associated with military operations in outer space. However, few states explicitly recognized the significance of gender in space security or the gender dimensions of those potential human costs. Among those that did, Canada and Sweden both emphasized the need for full and equal participation of women and men in the OEWG process. Additionally, Australia co-organized a side event to highlight the importance of gender equality as space is ‘for the benefit of all humankind’.
Exploring differences in the use of and dependence on space systems is a necessary step in assessing the true impacts of conflict in space. Gender perspectives are key to this work. For example, identifying the degree of access to space-enabled communications services and the ways they are used among girls and women in a particular population group can reveal how their education or livelihoods could be impacted by interference with these systems. A dedicated focus on gender perspectives in space security would both inform a fuller understanding of threats and bolster multilateral governance in the domain.
Advancing gender conversations in space security
Building on views that were expressed in the OEWG, states should sustain momentum towards integrating gender considerations into ongoing space security processes, including the upcoming GGE. Three elements central to integrating gender into space security are:
- Convening discussion of gender perspectives in space security
- Establishing gender balance in space security bodies and processes; and
- Supporting dedicated research initiatives on the gendered impacts of attacks on space systems.
Existing frameworks such as the women and peace and security (WPS) agenda established by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) can offer valuable guidance. Resolution 1325 urges member states to ensure ‘increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict’. The resolution also calls on all actors to adopt a gender perspective when negotiating and implementing peace agreements. Indeed, states and civil society representatives have recognized that the WPS agenda is critical to ensuring that space remains a peaceful domain and that activities in space serve the interests of all peoples, in line with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
1. Convene discussion of gender perspectives in space security
Progress on understanding and addressing the various gender dimensions of space security will require more discussion. The states that showed leadership on this issue during the OEWG process could facilitate further multilateral engagement.
In the September 2023 Political Declaration on Feminist Approaches to Foreign Policy, 19 states reaffirmed their commitment to take ‘feminist, intersectional and gender-transformative approaches’ to foreign policy. A number of these states have been active in multilateral space security governance processes, and could thus help to push for more discussion of gender perspectives.
Building on NGO-led consultations that have sparked thinking on the topic, initial dialogues among like-minded states could centre on expressing views and awareness raising. Discussions could then move on to the exchange of best practices and lessons learned regarding equal participation. This exchange can also help to clarify priorities and concepts, including the differences between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Sex and gender are often mistakenly used interchangeably in the discourse, but distinguishing between them has been critical in more accurately assessing impacts in other contexts, such as nuclear weapon use.
2. Establish gender balance in space security processes
States should look to improve women’s participation in space security processes at all levels, in line with the WPS agenda. To date, UN space security governance processes have come up woefully short. The GGE in 2012–13 on transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities featured no women among its 15 participants; the GGE on further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space in 2018–2019 reportedly included only three women among its 25 representatives. Poor gender balance, including at the leadership level within UN bodies, has also been noted by former UN representatives. Calls to redress the imbalance have come from several sides, not least civil society. Given UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s 2018 commitment, reiterated in 2021, to achieve or exceed gender parity in UN disarmament bodies, the upcoming GGE should demonstrate marked improvement.
However, women’s participation in space security processes is about more than being in the room. Women who are included on delegations should be able to contribute, engage and influence the discussions. This reflects the insight that women’s participation in security processes is ‘by necessity only the first step’ towards ‘achieving gender equality and the aims of the WPS agenda’.
Space for Women, a project of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), aims to enhance women’s access to education and career development in the space field and more broadly to ensure that the benefits of space reach women and girls. Meaningful participation by women would also facilitate the exchange of gender perspectives on substantive areas. For example, some experts have argued that the space-relevant treaties should be re-interpreted and the conversations reframed to be gender-inclusive.
Beyond multilateral processes, states should also take steps to integrate gender perspectives into their national policies related to space security. One example of how this can be done is Sweden’s national space strategy. It includes a commitment to ensure equal opportunities for men and women in space operations and directs the Swedish Space Agency and the Swedish Research Council to cooperate with universities towards this goal.
Meanwhile, in its 2023 Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy, the United States commits to ‘advocate for equity and equality in our diplomatic space dialogues to help close the gender gap and advance women’s economic security’ and to ‘press for . . . broad, consistent inclusion of civil society and non-governmental organizations, including those with indigenous representation and women-led organizations, in multilateral space governance’. Still, most space security and defence-oriented documents lack gender-related objectives: addressing this would be a welcome next step.
3. Support research on gender dimensions of space security
States should support dedicated research on the gendered impacts of military operations in space. The WPS agenda led to studies of gender-based impacts of armed conflict and the different risks and vulnerabilities faced by different populations. No such studies have been done related to the space domain. This is a glaring omission—especially in light of growing attacks on space systems, such as the cyberattack that targeted the Viasat KA-SAT network and crippled satellite communications on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.
As an example of how attacks or interference with space systems may adversely affect different populations, the destruction of earth-observation satellites would make it harder for states to monitor climate change and mitigate natural disasters; this in turn likely has disproportionate impacts on populations in developing states, and especially women. Such differential potential impacts require further study.
By identifying types of space system that are essential for civilians, including in situations of armed conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross has provided a helpful basis for exploring differential impacts of damage to or disruption of those systems. Several statements that were made in the OEWG suggest a desire to clarify which systems constitute critical infrastructure. For example, the European Union noted that there was convergence on the need for ‘norms addressing activities that impair the provision of space-based/enabled services critical to the public’, while the joint statementdelivered by the Philippines suggested there was potential consensus in the working group on ‘protecting critical space-based services to civilians’. The United Kingdom further warned of the ‘profound and prolonged effects on the lives of citizens and the economic wellbeing of countries’ from damage to global navigation satellite systems, and the consequent risk of escalation and retaliation.
Research could characterize the different groups of users of services provided or enabled by specific types of space systems. With this foundation, studies can then explore how different categories of users might be affected by the interruption or loss of those services. This should not be limited to gender considerations; it is important to take into account other intersecting factors such as race, religion, nationality, age, caste and disability. More data of this sort can facilitate consideration of intersectional approaches, allowing future work to move beyond gender binaries and consider gender identities across the spectrum.
Research could also investigate the degree of reliance on and resilience of these systems at the state or regional level. Relevant variables include the ability of the state or region to detect, respond to and mitigate the effects of attacks on specific systems. Related to this, states should undertake or support scenario-mapping exercises, which can identify the extent of potential civilian impacts.
The multilateral governance of space security is at critical juncture. As both the civilian and the military spheres become ever more reliant on space systems, the scope for fallout from damage to those systems—whether deliberate or accidental—is growing. As the international community explores how to govern space security, incorporating gender considerations is essential—not only for more equitable and effective governance, but also to better understand the risks associated with attacks on or interference with space systems. The elements proposed above therefore suggest a preliminary ‘agenda’ on gender perspectives in space security.
About the authors:
- Nivedita Raju is a Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.
- Dr Wilfred Wan is the Director of the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.
Source: This article was published by SIPRI