UNDIR Outer Space Security Conference Panel Discusses Building Common Understandings Between Stakeholders

Delegates at the Outer Space Security Conference 2023. Image credit: UNIDIR.

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research recently held a conference concerning space matters, including one on building “common understandings between stakeholders” when it comes to space security. A large theme of the panel was how much power commercial companies have these days, and the regulations that do (and do not) exist to manage their power.

The panel was uploaded to YouTube on Oct. 11. It included:

  • James Revill, moderator (Head of Programme, Weapons of Mass Destruction and Space Security, UNIDIR)
  • Aya Iwamoto (Vice President, Policy and Government Relations, Astroscale Japan)
  • Guoyu Wang (Associate Professor and Dean of the Academy of Air, Space Policy and Law, Beijing Institute of Technology; Founder, Beijing HarmonizeSpace Consultancy)
  • Alexandre Vallet (Chief, Space Services Department, Radiocommunication Bureau, International Telecommunication Union)
  • Hannah Ashford (Managing Director, The Karman Project)
  • Claudio Leopoldino (Head of the Division for Disarmament and Sensitive Technologies, Brazil Mission to the UN, Geneva)

“Space security is an area that is complex, and it’s evolving swiftly with dynamic risks emerging from changes in technology – but also access an operations in space,” Revill said in opening the discussion, referring to the number of nations with launching capabilities and the rapidly cheapening aspect of launch costs. Space security, he said, would best arise from a “common understanding around policies around practices around language related to space security issues,” which was one of the larger aims of the conference.

Iwamoto pointed out that commercial space is not a “monolithic” set of entities, as companies are broken out into activities like human spaceflight, Earth observation and launching services. But he called for individual nations to, where possible, have a “strong space industry to provide services to all end users” and to better understand how these may impact wartime operations, Ukraine being an example.

SpaceX, not on the panel, famously played a role in stopping Ukrainian submarine attacks through disabling Starlink communications, as was explained in Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Elon Musk. Without alluding to this incident directly, Iwamoto said it is possible for commercial companies to have “grey power” in areas such as cyberattacks, and that there is a diversity of views on what space security means to individual space companies. Both create new complexities in terms of how commercial companies operate.

Leopoldino agreed that the “lack of common understanding” among countries and companies is making space security more difficult to manage. The problem has been steadily increasing as the number of launching states increase – a much more marked departure from the late 1970s when it was mostly “bipolar,” in his words, referring to how only the United States and Soviet Union used to have launch capabilities. (And back then, it was through the government.)

The increasing number of satellites today do bring benefits such as accessibility, but they also lead to a “a very congested situation in outer space,” he said. He asked for everyone to realize that space security is a world problem, as the economy is useful both for launching and non-launching states alike, and asked for the community to push harder into initiatives such as banning weapons and anti-satellite testing. (The Russians notoriously performed an anti-satellite test in 2021 which briefly threatened the International Space Station, which he did not mention directly.)

Vallet, after providing a brief overview of the ITU, said one of the challenges of her organization is there is little legal stability as the regulations are reviewed and revised every four years with regards to international treaties – a necessary process to “keep pace with technological advancements in the telecommunication sector,” she explained. Another of the many complexities she outlined was the membership of ITU, which includes not only member states of the United Nations, but also private sector members.

Her worry, which she said other panelists share, is  the absence of underlying willingness to reach common understanding,” which is exacerbated by international law that is made at the level of the nation-state and not at the international level. Nations, she added, are reluctant to make moves outside their borders because they fear their own activities will be constrained. She asked for experts and governments to come together, with governments creating the treaties and trusting the advice of experts, and to use a global approach such as the Outer Space Treaty (which underlies international space law) to assist with regulation.

Ashford said her organization does their best to manage “leveraging differences in terms of backgrounds and disciplines to build common understandings among varying stakeholders and in space,” which is especially crucial as the space environment is changing so quickly in terms of the number of satellites that are there. Commercial activities, she warned “frequently lack a clear regulatory home, and commercial goals and security goals can conflict with one another.”

Her solution was not only transparency, but asking private actors to “increase ownership and responsibility.” She allowed that such a process is complex and would require many meetings and lots of nuance. But a first step, which The Karman Project tries to do, is create a “safe space” under Chatham House rules to allow stakeholders to speak freely. Regular forums, such as what takes place with the Secure World Foundation, would be opportunities to continue this trust-building and to create “informed and representative dialogue between these stakeholders.”

Wang said while the community recognizes the “dichotomy of soft law and hard law,” referring respectively to guiding norms and legally binding rules, he said a better approach could be using “lex lata.” Very simply put, lex lata refers to law that can be enforced – which may cut across the two categories.

He also asked for a “new comprehensive treaty” to follow on from the Outer Space Treaty, addressing matters more directly such as what non-governmental authorities can and cannot do under states. (This matter is not very well-considered in the OST as it was formed in the 1960s before commercial companies were so powerful.) This may, he said, cover such issues as “getting involved in armed conflicts.”

A question from the floor about enforcing commercial activities under current legislation elucidated more clarity from the panel about what they can and cannot do. For example, they are subject to the OST under international treaties. National laws govern matters such as radio frequencies, and both the OST and national laws (to a lesser or greater extent, in the latter case) encourage states supervise non-governmental actors.

Another question about the awareness of commercial companies prompted discussion about how private entities are certainly aware about space security, but it may be only at a conceptual level. Sometimes there is a lack of will to think about geopolitics, which is where it would be hoped that international discussions would spur more discussion about space sustainability. Solutions going forward could include more consistent application of international law on matters such as signal jamming, holding more regular discussions for stakeholders and to make attendance as representative as possible, and to make sure solutions take into account all stakeholders’ security concerns as best as possible.

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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