Although it started with an objection, the 61st meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) reaffirmed the role of the Committee as a unique venue where member States and Observers may inform, learn, express appreciation, voice concern and simply come together to discuss particular issues and raise aspirational bars regarding the exploration and use of space.
Following the cooperative spirit and pageantry of UNISPACE+50, it was rather ironic that an entire morning was given to debating whether North Korea should be officially permitted to observe the COPUOS session. Those opposed argued that it would contradict the fundamental purpose of the Committee – to promote the peaceful use of outer space – to allow a nation whose space program is carried out in violation of many UN Security Resolutions to participate in the Committee’s work. Those in favor pointed out that there exists no precedent to deny the right of any state that is a member of the United Nations to participate in COPUOS.
As the debate raged on, it brought to mind Douglas Adams’ wry introduction to our Earth.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy,” Adams wrote in the masterwork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
And indeed, as we contemplate the vastness of space and the baby-steps we have taken to explore its mysteries, a meeting in Vienna of diplomatic representatives from 87 member States which commenced this year with predictable, if not formulaic debate felt dated, futile and yes, even primitive.
But beyond this ultimately procedural disagreement, the discussion fostered by the 61st session was far from primitive. It was, instead focused on the very real, very concrete and very modern effort to harness space exploration to address global challenges and promote the development of a sustainable space economy.
What is clear, and clearly understood is that as the roster of space actors – both private and governmental – grows, the need for a system to govern space activities becomes increasingly essential. After all, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, colloquially known as the Outer Space Treaty, or OST, is just that – an agreement on general principles. Certainly, the OST enshrines two foundational principles: 1) the common interest in the exploration and use of outer space; and 2) the freedom of that exploration. To that end, it makes clear that neither the Moon nor any other celestial bodies shall be “subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.” However, it does not create rights, provide regulation or establish an enforcement mechanism. The OST is inspirational, aspirational and offers guidance, but it falls far short of organizing a governing regime for outer space.
Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the COPUOS is not a legislative, executive, governing or even regulatory body. The Committee cannot make law, nor can it enforce laws that currently exist. Decisions are made by consensus, not vote, so any one nation may prevent the Committee from making even unenforceable recommendations.
Recognizing the new challenges we face in space today, outgoing Chair, Canada’s David Kendall, commended the Committee for its work and expressed his belief that the Committee’s greatest strength lays in its need for compromise. Mr. Kendall offered three recommendations to guide the Committee: first, he urged the COPUOS to give greater voice to its two subcommittees which meet separately, in February to focus on Science and Technology and in April to focus on Legal matters; second, he advised that the COPUOS must learn to act more swiftly; and finally, he encouraged the Committee to engage and listen not just to fellow member States, but also to industry and academia.
For her part, incoming Chair, Rosa Maria Ramirez de Arellano y Haro of Mexico, made clear that she would embrace the Committee’s mandate to focus on international cooperation and work to develop consensus to steer global space governance. The new Chair highlighted the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement as “a hopeful and positive sign that nations may collectively come together to achieve consensus on complex issues that challenge the safety, security and sustainability of outer space activities for all space actors.” She used the 55th anniversary of the space mission of Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space – to announce the Chair’s commitment to “promote gender equality and the empowerment of women . . . not only in space exploration, but through all sectors and areas of space economy, space society, space accessibility and space diplomacy.”
Throughout the week, the Chair guided discussion of agenda items ranging from “Ways and Means of Maintaining Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes” to “Space and Climate Change” to the “Use of Space Technology in the United Nations System” to, importantly, the “Future Role of the Committee.” The most edifying statements were made during the “General Exchange of Views” wherein States and Observers have the opportunity to share with the Committee their own space activities. And some of the most interesting information was produced to illustrate the “spin-off benefits of space technology” which includes, among many others, the fact that the Oscar trophy uses the same gold that helps telescopes view distant galaxies and the development of an organic compound which turns toxic waste into harmless byproducts.
Of particular note is the consensus reached on Long-Term Sustainability Guidelines after eight years of discussion and negotiation. The LTS Guidelines are recommendations regarding best practices to help promote the “ability to maintain the conduct of space activities indefinitely into the future in a manner that realizes the objectives of equitable access to the benefits of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes, in order to meet the needs of the present generations while preserving the outer space environment for future generations.” While voluntary, they offer a hopeful roadmap for international cooperation in respect of space activities.
The Committee also tasked itself to establish a working group that would prepare a Space 2030 Agenda that would support sustainable development.
Not surprisingly, the official report of the Committee is replete with paragraphs that begin “some delegations expressed the view” or “the view was expressed that.” These “views” cover every issue from orbital debris to the application of international law to small-satellite activities to potential legal models for activities in exploration, exploitation and utilization of space resources. The report, which is available online, capture the views, aspirations and concerns of a life-form not obsessed with digital watches, but entranced with the endless possibility and opportunity that space offers humanity – and intent on harnessing that possibility and opportunity to better the experience of all humankind.
For the record, no consensus was reached with respect to North Korea’s request to observe the COPUOS session and so it was not addressed in the final report. Despite the lack of formal recognition, representatives of the country were not barred from attending the meetings. One can only hope that the spirit of collaboration – and the intensity with which the COPUOS promotes peace will create a lasting impression on these individuals, and their nation.