8th June 2021 Geneva, Switzerland
Responsible behaviours in outer space: towards UNGA 76
2021 marches on, and it’s time for another update on the UK’s initiative on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours.
Regular readers will be familiar with the story so far. The UK-sponsored resolution of that name (A/RES/75/36) was adopted by the General Assembly in December. Four key ideas underpinned it. First, that we need a broader discussion of outer space security that looks at the whole range of threats emanating from States (as opposed to hazards inherent in the space environment, which are the business of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna). Second, that we need to consider space systems in their totality – the elements in space and on the ground, and the data links between them. Third, that considering behaviours, rather than weapons, might break the deadlock. And fourth, that we need a more inclusive, more organic process, recognising that the security of space systems affects all states. The resolution called on Member States to consider how a behaviour-based approach could help reduce threats to space systems and prevent an arms race in outer space, and submit their views to the UN Secretary-General, who will compile a report to be considered at the next First Committee in October.
The deadline for those submissions was 3 May, and over the last few weeks we’ve been reading them with great interest. 29 states from all the UN regional groups plus the EU contributed, as did UNIDIR, the ICRC, and seven NGOs. (You can read them all, including the UK’s, here.) A handful chose not to engage with the spirit of the new approach. But the vast majority did, and there were lots of great ideas that would be worth studying and discussing in more detail. Limiting direct ascent anti-satellite missiles that create debris was a common theme, and many also raised the questions of directed energy and electronic attacks, and the complexities of rendezvous and proximity operations in orbit.
The same was evident in last week’s thematic discussion in the Conference on Disarmament, under its agenda item on ‘prevention of an arms race in outer space’ (PAROS). What’s really exciting is to see that those four fundamental ideas encapsulated in our resolution are now a mainstream part of the debate. There’s also clearly an appetite across the UN membership for a further phase of collective work on this, and seeing where it leads. Whether that’s a legally binding instrument or something else is entirely open, and supporting this approach doesn’t mean giving up supporting proposals for legally binding treaties.
So, what happens next? We expect the Secretary-General’s report to issue in August. We’ll spend the summer consulting Member States about exactly how they want to take this forward, and use that to shape the draft resolution we’ll table at the UN General Assembly First Committee in October. There’s plenty of work to do!