Commentary | A Golden Opportunity on a Golden Anniversary

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The following is taken from remarks during the International Space Reception Panel last month at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

We will soon observe the 50th anniversary of the adoption by the U.N. General Assembly of the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space.” This resolution, which was adopted by consensus on Dec. 13, 1963, laid out a number of key principles, including that the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations.

In endorsing these principles, the U.N. General Assembly affirmed what had been key precepts of the U.S. National Space Policies of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Diplomatic historians note that the consensus on the 1963 principles declaration also benefited from an easing of superpower tensions after the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just over three years later, the principles declaration formed the core for the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which remains the foundation of the international legal framework for space activities.

In the half-century since the principles declaration was adopted, all nations and peoples have seen a radical transformation in the way we live our daily lives, in many ways due to our use of space. The globe-spanning and interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space can have damaging consequences for all of us. As a result, it is essential that all nations work together to adopt approaches for responsible activity in space to preserve this right for the benefit of future generations.

Given the importance of international cooperation, I am pleased to report the achievement of consensus of the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities during meetings in New York.

The group was established by the U.N. General Assembly to study the possible contributions of voluntary, nonlegally binding transparency and confidence-building measures to strengthen stability and security in outer space. It included experts nominated by 15 U.N. member states. Victor Vasiliev, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, ably served as the group’s co-chairman in three sessions over the last 12 months. I was privileged to serve as the U.S. expert.

To help inform its work, the group agreed at its first meeting last year to solicit inputs from other governments, other parts of the U.N. system involved in space activities, as well as civil society. In response, the group received a number of thoughtful and substantive inputs, including one provided by the Secure World Foundation.

As the group’s study progressed, the United States sought to find solutions to common challenges and problems in an increasingly contested and congested space environment. The group’s study was a unique opportunity to establish consensus on the importance and priority of voluntary and pragmatic measures to ensure the sustainability and safety of the space environment as well as to strengthen stability and security in space for all nations.

The group recommended that member states and international organizations consider and implement a range of measures to enhance the transparency of outer space activities, further international cooperation, consultations and outreach, and promote coordination to enhance safety and predictability in the uses of outer space.

Furthermore, it endorsed efforts to pursue political commitments — including a multilateral code of conduct — to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, outer space. In this regard, the group noted the efforts of the European Union to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities through open-ended consultations with the international community. (The United States announced its decision in January 2012 to join with the European Union and other nations to develop a code of conduct.)

The group’s endorsement of voluntary, nonlegally binding transparency and confidence-building measures to strengthen stability in space is a landmark development. The United States looks forward to the official issuance of the group’s study, which will be submitted by the U.N. secretary general to the 68th session of the General Assembly. We think this report can serve as the basis for a consensus resolution on space transparency and confidence-building measures  — which would serve as a most appropriate commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the principles declaration.

Finally, the group’s study endorsed efforts to pursue bilateral transparency and confidence-building measures. This highlights the importance of efforts such as ongoing discussions on space security policy that the United States has been conducting with a number of spacefaring nations. These discussions, along with U.S. efforts to develop mechanisms for improved warning of potential hazards to spaceflight safety, themselves constitute significant measures to clarify intent and build confidence.

We are increasingly reliant on space, not only when disasters strike but also for our day-to-day life. However, our ability to continue to use space for these benefits is at serious risk. Accidents or irresponsible acts against space systems would not only harm the space environment but also disrupt services on which the international community depends. As a result, we must take action now and pursue transparency and confidence-building measures in space. These measures will enhance the long-term sustainability, stability, safety and security of the space environment. Protecting the space environment for future generations is in the vital interests of the United States and the entire global community.

 

Frank A. Rose is U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy.