Outer space was considered a largely peaceful domain until a decade ago. No longer. The situation has been worsening progressively with countries pursuing destructive activities in space. Unless corrective steps are taken to regulate the kind of activities states engage in in outer space, exploration and peaceful use of outer space even in the medium term cannot be guaranteed.
There are several efforts that have been undertaken in recent years in order to moderate the activities in outer space. The most recent is the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors. The group concluded its work on September 1. Given the contentious and competitive dynamics of great power relations at present, the OEWG could not arrive at a consensus. This was a repeat of the 2018-19 U.N. Group of Governmental Experts on further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), which also ended without success.
The recent OEWG outcome was almost single-handedly scuttled by Russia, although Moscow was joined by other usual suspects including China, Iran, and Venezuela. In particular, Russia objected to the use of the phrase “responsible behavior” in space, saying that it was “divisive” and “illegitimate,” and therefore “should not be an item on the U.N.’s agenda.”
This is not the first time that Russia has made such objections. In fact, Konstantin Vorontsov, the Russian deputy head of the delegation, said earlier (at the Thematic Discussion on Outer Space: Disarmament Aspects in the First Committee of the 77th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, on October 26, 2022) that with concepts like “responsible behavior” in space, “we confirm our concern that the adoption of certain measures that de facto introduce new rules for the use of outer space, when there is no universal legal regime of international treaties on PAROS, will be counterproductive.” He further raised issues like “who and on the basis of what criteria will determine the degree of responsibility of states. We see in this approach the risks of politicization and subjective judgments of a manipulative nature in the interests of a certain group of states.”
The fear of subjective interpretation of responsible behavior can be addressed. The current discussions are precisely to codify a set of principles aimed at identifying what can be considered responsible and irresponsible behavior in space. While Russia has taken pains to make it sound like these are alien concepts, they are judicious and practical measures to maintain the sanctity of outer space as a peaceful domain. “Responsible behavior” is nothing but norms or practices that are to be followed in the interests of the larger global community. Measures such as not interfering with satellites of other countries may be common sense, but increasingly it appears necessary to codify this and other norms as responsible behavior so that states continue to adhere to them. With the worsening geopolitical dynamics and contested great power relations, even obvious good behavior needs to be spelled out clearly.
In the space context, this would prohibit engaging in activities that result in the creation of long-lasting space debris that would make space sustainability a challenge. Similarly, it will prohibit interference with the functioning of satellites of other countries. In fact, these two norms have prevailed for many decades, but in recent years have been repeatedly broken with no due regard for other states’ interests and assets. In fact, the concept of “due regard” for other nation’s space activities, and the need to develop a series of norms that will recognize “due regard” for other nation’s space activities, was identified as important at the recent OEWG.
It should be noted that this is not a new concept but a provision that exists in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Nevertheless, the increasing dilution of norms that prevailed for decades suggest that the concepts and principles contained in foundational treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty need to be re-emphasized in new norms and also as binding measures. All of this essentially suggests the urgent need for international agreements, whether legal or political. New agreements are becoming critical in order to reduce risks to international peace and security and to enhance predictability in space that would reduce risks of misperceptions and inadvertent conflicts in space. Defining concepts like responsible behavior in space and due regard for other nation’s space activities is important if the global community is to be able to continue using space in a sustainable manner.
A follow-on OEWG has been supported by most states in order to continue discussions on these very concepts. But Russia appears to have been against the idea. There is also an upcoming meeting of the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space under Russian leadership from November 20-December 1. This GGE’s focus will be on developing treaty proposals.
Of course, given the stalemate at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, which has remained the traditional venue for space security and arms control issues, these multiple initiatives and proposals can be used to discuss and debate space security issues. But one must also acknowledge that the biggest challenge in developing an outer space regime is the lack of consensus among major powers, which is a political issue. Overcoming the political hindrances means addressing issues like the serious lack of trust and confidence among major powers. Hence, the first and foremost step required is to engage in measures that would instill greater political confidence in each other before insisting on legal measures that require trust, which is totally absent in today’s contested global politics.