UN Headquarters
United Nations headquarters in New York. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

At first glance, a United Nations working group established to develop norms of responsible behavior in space was a failure. The group, formally known as the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Reducing Space Threats, was charged by the U.N. General Assembly with crafting a consensus report on “possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors” in space. However, the group wrapped up its final meeting at the beginning of September without approving a report, largely because of opposition from Russia and China. No consensus, no report.

“This was very disappointing,” said Cláudio Medeiros Leopoldino of Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs during a panel discussion organized by the Secure World Foundation nearly two months later. It was a similar outcome, he said, to a 2019 U.N. effort, a Group of Governmental Experts, on preventing an arms race in outer space. “Both of these results demonstrate there is a profound deficit of trust between major actors in the space domain.”

But the failure of the group to produce a report was not a failure of the overall effort, he and other panelists argued. “The OWEG has been an extremely useful exercise even though it was not able to agree to a final report,” he said, bringing together a diverse set of nations to discuss space security.

“I don’t think the failure to reach a report was a failure of the work of the group,” said Almudena Azcárate Ortega of the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research. “The discussions of the group were highly successful.”

That included, she said, a report by the working group’s chairman, Chilean diplomat Hellmut Lagos, that served as an unofficial replacement for the failed consensus report. His report included nine recommendations that ranged from refraining from conducting destructive ASAT tests to increased transparency on space activities and policies.

But the lack of formal outcomes from that working group or other recent efforts illustrates what seems like an unbridgeable gap in efforts to advance space security. One camp, which includes the United States and many other Western nations, advocates for non-binding agreements that can be developed relatively quickly. The other, which includes China and Russia, prefers legally binding instruments, like a treaty those two countries have long proposed to ban the placement of weapons in space.

That gap is an “artificial divide,” argued Izumi Nakamitsu, under-secretary general and high representative for disarmament affairs at the United Nations, in a speech at a Stimson Center event on space governance in November. “It is already apparent that these two supposedly competing approaches will likely converge on a single set of measures,” like preventing deliberate destruction of space objects or the use of space objects as weapons.

The U.N.’s approach to dealing with that divide is to double down — literally — on working groups. The U.N. is planning to set up two new open-ended working groups, one that would continue the work of the earlier one on norms and other on-binding tools, and another that would study legally binding agreements.

“We will try to make sure that these two processes will not go their separate ways but that they will be complementary and have a certain type of synergy,” Nakamitsu said. Norms that are not legally binding, she argued, could eventually become the basis for an agreement like a legally binding treaty.

There are, she acknowledged, challenges to that approach, particularly the capacity of many nations that are not major space powers to participate in two parallel efforts. The U.N. is investing in capacity-building efforts with countries that are not traditional spacefaring nations to impress upon them the importance of these discussions.

“What we need, in our view, is for states to take a leap of faith,” said Cláudio Medeiros Leopoldino at the Secure World panel, such as countries that had advocated for non-binding norms to at least consider binding agreements. “This would make a tremendous difference in how those discussions move forward.” It may require a tremendous leap, though, to cross an artificial, but very real, divide in space security.

This article first appeared in the December 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...