Commentary | Space Governance: A Modest but Important Start

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In early October, the United Nations submitted the report from its Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities, which was presented at the 68th U.N. General Assembly. A statement released by the U.S. State Department congratulated the countries involved in the formulation of measures. 

The document aims to enhance transparency in outer space activities through international cooperation, consultations, information exchange, risk reduction notifications and regular visits with an aim to minimize risks to space objects. 

While this measure may not entirely address the national security dilemmas of all actors who possess assets in space, this move ought to be welcomed on the grounds that it symbolizes a strong international commitment toward maintaining a long-term sustainable, stable and secure space environment.

Critics have often cited the voluntary nature and a lack of enforcement mechanism with transparency and confidence-building measures as a key weakness. They further point out the political hypocrisy and fate of many other multilateral regimes such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Arms Trade Treaty and the Hague Code of Conduct. The critics are wrong and right. 

They are right because, admittedly, regimes such as these have struggled due to their voluntary nature. Voluntary disclosures under the framework of the Hague Code of Conduct have been largely ignored by many countries. Similarly, the Missile Technology Control Regime faced criticisms about its inability to set norms. It began with a loose framework of norms that were heavily dependent on the will of the like-minded nations.

Politically and legally binding treaties such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Arms Trade Treaty have caused their own sense of anguish among states. Their resentment with these multilateral regimes is well known, and it is unlikely that these states would ever consent to a multilateral regime that is legally and politically binding, if founded on such principles.

However, the critics are wrong as they appear to draw upon their political experience of negotiating other treaties with that of space. While it is true to an extent that politics plays a great role in negotiating international treaties, it also must not be forgotten that to negotiate some of these treaties one must thoroughly understand the science behind what is being negotiated.

For example, drawing on the experience of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to negotiate any agreement on space is flawed. Many analysts routinely borrow the concept of mutually assured destruction toward space activities, reminiscent of the Cold War. While space and nuclear deterrence have some commonalities, there are also certain different principles of deterrence, something that is ignored. 

The critics are also wrong because by insisting on a global regulatory and investigative regime over any cooperative best practices, they are unclear in distinguishing between what is necessary and what is sufficient. Once again, it attests to the fact that past experiences in one regime scar negotiations in another regime. 

Today, there are 22,000 trackable (about 10 centimeters or larger) pieces of debris in low Earth orbit left behind by dead satellites and rocket launchers, including the 1,000 or so active satellites. This was complicated by the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite weapon test.  U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center monitors space debris with a worldwide network of 29 ground-based radars and optical sensors. In 2010 alone these warnings resulted in 126 satellite maneuvers to avoid collisions with other satellites or debris. But no country alone has the resources, the technical expertise or the geographical reach to resolve the problem of situational space awareness, thus making international cooperation a pivotal element toward mitigating risks to objects in space. 

The United Nations’ Group of Governmental Experts addresses these issues as a part of its transparency and confidence-building measures and encourages states to implement some of these steps.

The central point one should acknowledge is when there are no good options, it is not in anybody’s best interest to make the best the enemy of the good. By drawing faulty analogies from other regimes, one faces the risk of comparing apples and oranges.

Today more than 60 actors have assets in space and the significance of space needs no convincing. The governance of space has received scattered attention in capitals around the world. The U.N. Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities signifies a modest beginning to address some of the challenges that assets in space face. Admittedly, there is a long way to go. But criticizing these measures on hypothetical grounds amounts to throwing the real-threats baby out with hypothetical-excuses bathwater.

 

Bharath Gopalaswamy is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.