The U.N. Does Not Just Take Up Space

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By Joniel Cha

Foreign policymaking underpins country-to-country relations. Space policy matters hardly make front-page national headlines or cross the mind of the average global citizen. What exactly is the United Nation’s role in outer space and why is it concerned about space activity?

The U.N. is involved in space activity on different fronts, including remote sensing, telecommunications and spatial information. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) focuses on civilian cooperation in space activity: the peaceful use of space.

Chief of the Committee of the Policy and Legal Affairs Section of OOSA Mr. Niklas Hedman presented on U.N. space policy at the American Society of International Law on October 14, 2016.

Mr. Hedman began by comparing the striking similarities between the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Law of the Seabed and the Law of (Outer) Space in the concept of extraterritorial jurisdiction. UNCLOS borrowed rules from ancient times in dealing with maritime transportation and trade, but has matured since then. Every state is interested in water transportation and allocation of resources. Space, on the other hand, is new in comparison — only about 60 years old — and started between two major states that conducted space activities, which has morphed into many states participating. It was predominantly state-controlled at first, but now the private sector and industries are the main driving force.

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is an intergovernmental body of 83 members and connected to the Secretariat. COPUOS oversees exploration, exploitation and utilization of space and celestial bodies. Its most notable agreements are the 1963 Outer Space Treaty and 1979 Moon Agreement.

For over 40 years, the definition of the limitation of outer space has not been settled; there is no legal limit between earth space and outer space. Despite political motivations perpetuating agenda items, working groups are successful in space policymaking. Recommendations on registration practice of satellites, for example, enhanced and harmonized the launching of satellites from states through registration processes and best practices.

Space law lacks enforcement instruments because it is a nonbinding resolution and hence depends on voluntary cooperation. A more robust global space legislation is required to deal with launch activities, especially for developing countries. “We are entering a new phase that is challenging, complex and engaging,” said Mr. Hedman.

COPUOS debates the issues of space traffic management and small satellite activities. The committee must define space traffic and set the legal instruments and policies. It will determine the legislation on small satellites for developing countries to enter into space.

The UNISPACE+50, also known as the 1968+50 Second Conference in Vienna, is subsequent to the 1968 First Conference in Vienna. It functions to bring working groups together to accomplish seven thematic priority objectives and focuses on space economy, society, accessibility, and diplomacy. Mr. Hedman discussed the priority deals with the legal apparatus of global space governance. The working groups must discuss the status of space treaty and legal regime on space today, considering the scientific advancement in this area and the new actors that have recently entered into the space arena. Does the space law machine stand the test of time and is the space law adequate? COPUOS is analyzing whether the space treaties are synced and if they work together hand in hand with the current space activities.

Since last year, COPUOS has focused on safety, security and sustainability. The civil space community centered on international cooperation and the peaceful use of outer space, while the security community concerned itself with prevention of arms race, non-weaponization, disarmament affairs and trust building. COPUOS shifted the attention of the report away from the traditional disarmament and nonproliferation towards communication exchange, civil space use and safety. This paved the way for strong incorporation and coordination among COPUOS and the legal and security subcommittees. COPUOS is entering a broader space security arena with space exploration still the main driver.

Mr. Daniel Porras shared his analysis of the event, “From space mining to mega-constellations of small satellites, Mr. Hedman gave us a glimpse of how the international community is embracing these issues and holding meaningful discussions on what needs to be done to support technological advancements. I was especially interested to hear about the increased co-operation between the civil and security communities in the U.N. to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities. Without such discussions, problems like space debris and the weaponization of outer space could have catastrophic consequences.”

Mr. Charles Stotler provided commentary as well: “We are extremely grateful to Niklas Hedman for taking time out of his busy schedule to visit Washington D.C. and to address the ASIL Space Law Interest Group. We also thank Chris Johnson for stepping in to conduct the interview. Their conversation covered a wide array of current issues under international space law. The most pressing issues seem to arise out of the rapid increase in the number of space actors — both new spacefaring nations and private companies conducting space activities — and proposals for new activities in outer space, such as human habitats and space resource utilization. These issues create challenges under the current space law regime but also opportunities for new directions in law and policy. We look forward to a new phase of the Legal Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space as its member states seek to address these challenges.”

Photos courtesy of the American Society of International Law.
To view the recorded video, courtesy of the American Society of International Law, please click on the following link:

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