Guest Blog: Progress Toward Rules of the Road in Space

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Has anyone heard of a UN GGE? Show of hands? Yeah, that’s what I thought. But the convening of a United Nations Group of Governmental Experts just might be the first step toward building new multilateral norms for the use of space. A UN GGE is a panel of governmentally appointed “experts” to discuss forward motion by the UN toward a goal: in this case about developing transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) for space activities.

The concept of developing specific, UN-agreed TCBMs for space was first vetted by the Russians in 2004 through a General Assembly Resolution, and has been refined in annual GA Resolutions — the latest in October 2009. The resolution has received overwhelming support, including by the European Union, but until recently been shunned by the United States, which has feared it would be a step down the slippery slope toward legal restraints on military space activities. But, under the Obama administration — which has less of an allergy to multilateral solutions to global problems than the previous administration — things are changing, with the 2009 resolution passing by consensus.

The Russian concept — presented to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in August 2009 (found here) — for TCBMs is sound. Indeed, the proposal echoes recommendations long put forth by space scientists, industrialists and academics, such as the International Academy of Astronautics, on needed “rules of the road” for space operations.

And it is Russia that is now proposing the creation of a GGE. At the UNIDIR “Space Security Conference 2010 — From Foundations to Negotiations” held March 29-30 in Geneva, Victor Vasiliev, deputy permanent representative at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations in Geneva, said: “In order to conduct a more in-depth study of issues relating to TCBMs and the preparation of recommendations for further work in this area, it would be useful to establish a United Nations Group of Governmental Experts with the appropriate mandate.” 

American diplomats have expressed interest in, and potential support for, the idea — although Washington is still leery about being dragged into any formal negotiations on a space weapons treaty. If a bilateral agreement is reached, it is likely such a panel could be established by the UN General Assembly in October, allowing work to start early next year. Establishment of a GGE is far from a guarantee that any useful moves toward agreed TCBMs will be taken. For one thing, the level of “experts” assigned to GGEs by participant countries varies wildly — from real experts to retired diplomats looking for a jaunt to NYC and Geneva. While some past GGEs have resulted in progress toward their goal, others have largely been political kabuki theater, failing to even agree on a report to the Secretary-General. On the other hand, simply the convening of a GGE, where focused dialogue can take place on TCBMs, should be seen as a sign of progress in building multilateral norms of behavior for space activities. One small step…

This could result in a first step toward the much needed establishment of “rules of the road”…