Insight - The United Nations, COPUOS, and Space in 2017

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

By Christopher Johnson, Space Law Advisor

The sixtieth session of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) concluded on June 16, 2017, in Vienna, Austria. However, consideration of space activities at the United Nations level is not over for the year, and a number of events, workshops, and conferences remain on the horizon. This brief article will first look back at the major UN-organized events on space already concluded, and offer a glimpse of meetings still on the calendar for the remainder for the year.

COPUOS’ Scientific and Technical Subcommittee met from January 30 to February 10, and agenda items included space debris, space weather, near Earth objects, and the long-term sustainability of space activities. Under this last agenda item, the STSC has been developing the Long-Term Sustainability (LTS) Guidelines, and these guidelines - while still in draft form - continue to be developed at intersessional meetings as they move toward completion. These non-legally binding guidelines fall into several broad categories: policy and regulatory frameworks; space operations; international cooperation and capacity-building; and scientific and technical research and development. The LTS Guidelines were also discussed before and during the COPUOS Plenary session in June, and their development is ongoing (see below). The 2017 Scientific and Technical Subcommittee report is online at the website of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

Following the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, the Legal Subcommittee met from March 27 to April 7. The International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and the European Centre of Space Law (ECSL) organized a symposium on the first day of the meeting on the topic of legal aspects of celestial resource use. Newer agenda items and main issues discussed included the international law applicable to small satellites, space traffic management, and other traditional UN-level discussions on international space law topics, including national space legislation, the legal definition and delimitation of outer space, and the status and application of the space law treaties. There was also an agenda item on exchange of views on potential legal models for activities in the exploration, exploitation, and utilization of space resources, with a number of COPUOS Member States expressing their opinions. The 2017 Legal Subcommittee report is online at the UNOOSA website.

The annual COPUOS plenary session was held June 7-16. Before the session began, the LTS Working Group met to consider the latest draft version of the LTS Guidelines. The final report from this COPUOS session is still ‘in process’ by UNOOSA (which serves as the Secretariat to COPUOS) but the draft report is available on the 2017 COPUOS webpage: Draft Report, Add.1, Add.2, Add. 3, Add. 4, Add.5, and Add. 6.

Already at 84 Member States, COPUOS continues to grow. In 2017, Bahrain, Denmark, and Norway submitted applications for membership to COPUOS. Applications for observer status were submitted by the European Science Foundation (ESF), the European Space Sciences Committee (ESSC), and by the University Space Engineering Consortium (UNISEC). COPUOS approved all of these applications, and the UN General Assembly will decide on them later this year. This increased participation by states developing their space capabilities and by non-state organizations reflects the diverse and interconnected range of actors using and/or affected by space activities. Because cooperation and coordination are so crucial to ensuring the continuing sustainable use of the space domain, there is real benefit of having their concerns included in discussions at COPUOS.

UN level discussions on space are not over for 2017. There are still a few developments to watch out for this summer and fall, as well as opportunities to get involved.

The Third ICAO/UNOOSA Workshop will be held in Vienna, August 29-31, and will investigate the overlap between airspace and outer space regimes, especially in light of emerging and expected aerospace and high-altitude activities such as suborbital transportation.

The Fifth Intersessional Meeting of the LTS Working Group on the Long-term Sustainability Guidelines will take place in Vienna, Austria from October 2-6. The meeting is only open to members of the LTS Working Group, but their deliberations will impact the progress of the LTS Guidelines and will be considered at next year’s COPUOS meetings.

The UN Expert Meeting on Space for Women will be held in New York, October 4-6. One of this conference’s aims is to promote efforts to encourage women and girls’ involvement in STEM education, a fundamental component of space activities. Meeting participants will discuss the scope and goals of a 'Space for Women' Project and develop a concrete project together.

The UN/Russian Federation Workshop on Human Capacity-Building in Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Social and Economic Development will be held in Samara, Russia, from October 30 to November 2. The application window for applicants seeking funding has already closed, but self-funded applicants can apply until August 10. This event is aimed at discussing both the UN-wide Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UNISPACE+50 process.

Also in November, the UN/United Arab Emirates High Level Forum ‘Space as a Driver for Socio-Economic Sustainable Development’ will be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates from November 6-9. This series of forums (of which SWF is a partner & sponsor) will provide updates and recommendations on the potential of space innovations to address new and emerging sustainable development challenges. Last year’s High Level Forum resulted in the Dubai Declaration which gives substance and direction towards the UNISPACE+50 process and aligns space activities and capabilities to sustainable development. Registration is open for the HLF until August 20.

The above list is not exhaustive of the activities to be hosted or organized by UNOOSA, or of the UN’s activities that impact outer space. A full calendar of activities is at the UNOOSA website.

Elsewhere at the United Nations, the UN General Assembly will open its 72nd session on September 12 at UN Headquarters in New York. The agenda of the General Assembly focuses on space in a few instances, especially in agenda item 52. ‘International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space’, and with agenda item 98. ‘Prevention of an arms race in outer space’. Under agenda item 52, the General Assembly receives and adopts the COPUOS report and adopts a yearly resolution on space entitled ‘International Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space’. These annual General Assembly resolutions on space give COPUOS its mandate for the next session, along with the mandate for UNOOSA’s Space Applications Section. This year the General Assembly will also be presented with a draft resolution adopted at this year’s COPUOS celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty.

This year the General Assembly will also host a joint panel discussion between its First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) and its Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonisation) on possible challenges to space security and sustainability, with panel presentations from the broader space community, including academia, civil society, and the private sector.

A broader development at the UN that may impact international space discussions is the recently concluded United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading Towards their Total Elimination. Having been adopted by the drafting convention, the draft text is now a treaty not yet in force. The national concerns and security interests that cropped-up as part of these negotiations may be echoed in or may impact upon space security discussions.

Looking toward next year, the Scientific & Technical Subcommittee will meet again January 29 to February 9, 2018. The Legal Subcommittee is scheduled for April 9-20, 2018. Spring 2018 may see another annual conference on space security co-organized by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and SWF in Geneva, Switzerland. The COPUOS plenary will meet from June 20-29, 2018 in two segments. June 20-21 will contain the UNISPACE+50 High-Level Segment, while June 22-29 will be the regular COPUOS agenda items.

Last updated on August 1, 2017