Insight - UNCOPUOS and Space Sustainability

Friday, July 1, 2016

By SWF Project Manager, Christopher Johnson

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1348 (XIII) of December 13, 1958, established the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) as the principal international committee to consider humankind’s activities in outer space. First established as an ad hoc committee, COPUOS was made a permanent committee with General Assembly Resolution 1472 (XIV) in 1959. Since the early sixties, COPUOS has met every year, usually alternating between UN Headquarters in New York City and the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1994, COPUOS was moved to the UN in Vienna, Austria, where it has since remained.

Last month in Vienna, COPUOS successfully concluded its 59th annual session.The present seems like an opportune time to consider some current developments from the most recent COPUOS meeting, as well as the Secure World Foundation’s role and approach to this indispensable international forum.

While original membership of COPUOS was 18 States, membership has grown over time to the current 83 Member States, and it is now one of the UN’s largest committees. New Zealand recently submitted their application for membership, and it is likely that COPUOS will keep growing.

Since 2008, the Secure World Foundation had attended and participated in COPUOS as a Permanent Observer. As a non-governmental organization, Secure World was entitled to apply for official NGO Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), one of the six principal organs of the United Nations system. This designation allows us to attend and observe meetings of the UN principal organs and of their subsidiary bodies, including COPUOS.

As a Permanent Observer, we lack some of the rights and privileges of Member States. While we can’t take the floor whenever we want by simply by raising our placard, we can still address COPUOS with statements and technical presentations under its various agenda items. Over the last several years, the Secure World Foundation has made multiple statements to highlight our work related to topics addressed by COPUOS, and also make technical presentations on specific topics of interest.

By attending and participating, we also have the opportunity to learn about the issues, tensions, and discussions that animate the international space community, see views expressed on important and evolving topics, and generally be a part of the international dialogue. Indeed, as space activities become ever more globalized and advanced, international dialogue is increasingly necessary. The international community has agreed that COPUOS is the forum to examine issues that affect the overall sustainability of space, and consequently our mission to encourage a cooperative approach to space sustainability has lead us to COPUOS, where we try to attend both the STSC, the LSC, and the larger plenary committee in June.

One of the most important recent developments at COPUOS is the work done on developing guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. Under the STSC’s agenda item on long-term sustainability, a Working Group on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities has been meeting continually since 2010 to negotiate and develop voluntary guidelines aimed at a holistic approach to promoting the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. With slow but steady steps, this LTS work is progressing.

Last month in Vienna, consensus was reached on an initial set of 12 guidelines covering a broad range of topics aimed at fostering space sustainability. These twelve guidelines, and the fifteen or so still under discussion, fall into several broad categories: policy and regulatory frameworks; space operations; international cooperation and capacity-building; and scientific and technical research and development. The topics addressed by these agreed-upon guidelines include encouraging States to adopt, amend, and revise existing national space regulations; ensuring appropriate structures to supervise national space activities; and ensuring the equitable, rational, and efficient use of radiofrequency spectrum and of orbital regions. Additionally, there are agreed guidelines on sharing and improving accuracy of orbital data, space debris, and space weather, as well as capacity building of space capabilities.

One of the agreed-upon guidelines seems especially relevant to the work of the Secure World Foundation. Guideline 26 concerns raising awareness of space activities, and includes a section on non-governmental entities, stating that “Cooperation between Governments and non-governmental entities should be encouraged and fostered. Non-governmental entities […] can play important roles in increasing international awareness of issues associated with space sustainability, as well as promoting practical measures to enhance space sustainability.” The guideline concludes with “[n]on-governmental entities can also play important roles in bring stakeholders together to develop common approaches to certain aspects of space activities that can collectively enhance the long-term sustainability of space activities.”

Indeed, this is precisely what we at Secure World Foundation are seeking to do, and having the aims of our work enshrined as a best-practices document from the UN reaffirms the path we have taken.

Looking to the future, a wide field of stakeholders ranging from national agencies, international institutions, commercial ventures, academia, and civil society will need to share their views and concerns, and work together to address a list of growing concerns. These include growing congestion in space, the use of Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs), the role of governmental oversight of new and emerging commercial activities, and the inclusion of non-governmental actors in space governance discussions. COPUOS certainly seems like an appropriate forum for these conversations.

With both the 60th anniversary of COPUOS and the 50th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty on the horizon, along with the next UNISPACE conference being planned for 2018, we in the international space community have the opportunity to reinforce and re-invigorate the role of this foundational international forum, ensuring the safe and sustainable use of space. See you in Vienna.

Last updated on November 3, 2016