The United Nations Could Finally Create New Rules for Space

A group of British diplomats proposed Monday that the United Nations establish a group to create new norms for international space behavior. This group would be responsible for preventing miscommunications that could lead into war. Spacefaring nations are able to damage or disrupt other satellites and this could lead to more tension in diplomatic situations.
This represents the first significant step forward in space rules development in over four decades. In 1967, the fledgling space powers negotiated the Outer Space Treaty. This is the most important piece in space law. According to Victoria Samson (Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation), a nonpartisan think-tank based in Broomfield Colorado, space is becoming more complicated. Space is crowded with players. New cyberweapons, lasers, and other technologies can be used to jam, dazzle or spoof satellites. Tens of thousands of satellites orbit in the sky.

It is well-known that if we don't get this right, it will destroy the space environment. David Edmondson, the UK's space security policy head and the leader of advanced threats, said that there is a consensus. We risk conflict if we don't get this right. People don't have any rules at the moment. This is what we want, but it takes time.

Monday's vote before UN's First Committee on International Security and Disarmament was overwhelmingly successful. Representatives from 163 countries voted yea, with eight abstentions and nine nays. Edmondson believes that the proposal will be approved by the UN General Assembly due to the overwhelming support and backing it received from the Biden administration.

This proposal would establish a new UN working group that will meet twice per year in Geneva in 2022 or 2023. The group must come to a consensus by the end of the year on new rules, and also identify areas that require further investigation. Cassandra Steer from the Australian National University in Canberra, an expert in space law and security, said that the group will be focusing on creating norms to prevent the types of activities that can escalate tensions or create debris.

The US representatives voted in favor of the UK-led proposal. However, the votes were opposed by the representatives from Russia and China, two of the most powerful space powers. These nations' opposition is a result of a long-running debate about whether the UN should instead concentrate efforts on negotiating new spacecraft treaties between all countries. Treaties are more powerful and more easily enforced. China and Russia, for example, have been pushing for a resolution to prevent an arms race in outerspace as well as a new international agreement against the deployment of weapons in space. Space is currently exempt from nukes.

These ideas are not popular with the US or its allies. For years, US representatives have opposed such proposals, arguing that space is free of weapons and there is no need to fight an arms race. In the 1980s, President Reagan supported the idea of space-based missile interceptors in the Star Wars concept. Although some policymakers, such as Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, still advocate for them today, no one has ever designed or launched such weapons. Steer states that the US and its allies have played a key role in preventing any progress on treaties and binding norms.