Commentary | U.N. Space Group: Is It Worth the Effort?

by

The United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities is expected to finalize its recommendations in July. The group comprises members nominated by 15 states: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Ukraine, working under the chairmanship of the Russian expert.

Since the group was established in 2011, it has done wider consultations with many state parties and nongovernmental organizations. Members have attended important seminars to get the sense of the wider spectrum of views. They also asked for proposals from all concerned agencies by April 29. Now, with these inputs in hand, followed by further discussions during the group’s third and final meeting, in July, it is expected that the final outcome with respect to transparency and confidence-building measures will soon be made available to the U.N. for further action.

In earlier meetings of the group on the nature of such measures, it was decided that they would be nonlegally binding and voluntary. At present it appears that the pattern of global thinking on devising a space regime is to accommodate certain states and avoid confrontation. In short, even after five decades of the existence of satellite systems in space, the global community in general appears not to be ready for a progressive space mechanism.

There could be various reasons for this, but before debating those details it is important to have some broad sense of why there is a need for such a space regime.

  • Particularly in the 21st century, satellite systems are central to various human activities. Naturally any disturbance to satellite operations, due to natural reasons or intentional tampering, directly affects various human actions.
  • From space debris to asteroids to meteors there are different kinds of space hazards. There is a need for advance warning to address such threats.
  • Investments by a few states in anti-satellite (ASAT) and space weapons are likely to lead to weaponization of space. This could eventually bring about a space arms race, which needs to be avoided.

All of these possibilities indicate that in order to avert any possible mishap in space leading to wider security anxieties, it is necessary to establish the global rule of law. Such law should be just and transparent.

It is important to note that space is no longer an exclusive domain for state actors. Increasing participation of private players highlights the necessity of an open regime where there should be no place for any surprises in regards to space activities. What is vital is to maintain the peaceful nature of space activities, and this is possible only with transparency and the formulation of a binding mechanism. Certain recent events demand the creation of an austere regime.

In spite of various genuine efforts by the United Nations for many years, no acceptable space mechanism has yet been found, mainly because few states are keen for any accountability in space as it is not vital to their individual interests. Acts such as banning weaponization of space could adversely impact the missile defense policies of a few states. Also, some states appear to be reluctant to make some of their space programs public. For the last few years the United States has undertaken three mysterious flights of the X-37B spaceplane (a robotic craft with a single flight lasting for many months) but has refused to divulge their purpose. China has yet to come clean in regards to its ASAT policies since it conducted its first ASAT test in January 2007. Only recently it was reported that China conducted a test of its Dong Ning-2 ASAT missile May 13, but again there is no clarity. There are also issues in regards to policies on ground-based satellite interceptors, jamming technologies, etc.

Presently, only 11 states have the capacity to launch satellites in space, but close to 50 have their own satellites in orbit. Almost all states view satellite technology as important to their socioeconomic development. Secrecy on the part of a few states in regards to their activities in space is detrimental to the health of various satellites. Hence, it is in the long-term interest of all budding space powers to demand the formulation of a responsible space regime.

It is important to have an ambitious policy response mechanism to address various activities related to space. If a few states are resistant to accountability, then other states should come together and form an impartial and legally binding space regime. In general, no U.N. regime has found 100 percent acceptability among the member states. The process of regime establishment has always been long and strenuous. Over a period of time various states understand the value of a transparent regime. It is time to choose effectiveness over accommodation.

 

Ajey Lele is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and author of the book “Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?”