COPUOS wades into the next great space debate

By Theresa Hitchens | June 26, 2008

It is a well-worn cliché that the gears of international diplomacy grind at a glacial pace. Breakthroughs often are preceded by years of background work during which progress barely crawls forward. So, it is not surprising that this year’s annual session of the Vienna-based U.N. Committee for Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) ended on June 20 without any decisions on the key question now bedeviling the global space community: How to ensure the long-term security of space operations in a more crowded, and more militarized, environment? But careful study of the proceedings–as well as the flurry of discussions on the margins–reveals an unmistakable trend toward collective action.

Much of the debate regarding next steps for space has gone on behind the COPUOS scenes, in part to avoid the turf battles and politics that inevitably enmesh all U.N. endeavors–even on issues that all 67 member states see as critical. For example, it took five years of jockeying for COPUOS to agree last June on a set of voluntary guidelines for space debris mitigation, despite the fact that the committee had agreed on a mandate for action several years prior to the beginning of formal discussions in 2002. (Of course, compared with the turtle that is the Conference on Disarmament, which for more than a decade has been stuck in an ever-deepening rut over proposed talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space–COPUOS is a veritable hare.)

In fact, COPUOS’s success on space debris mitigation emboldened its outgoing chairman, French space scientist Gerard Brachet, to push for widening the committee’s scope to include discussions of possible “rules of the road” for space operations, as well as other issues such as cooperative space exploration. His June 2007 working paper of potential future COPUOS activities suggested that an analysis of potential “rules of the road” be taken up by the committee’s Science and Technical Subcommittee, working with other international organizations such as the International Telecommunications Union. Not coincidentally, Brachet’s overture was followed in September 2007 by a European Union (EU) call for COPUOS to consider a more specific code of conduct for space. Meanwhile, France announced its intention to formally propose that COPUOS be given a specific mandate, starting in 2009, to address “long-term sustainable space activities.” All three of these overlapping initiatives were on the table at the June 11-20 COPUOS meeting.

On the surface, the results of this 51st session of COPUOS are underwhelming. The committee heard a short presentation from France, on behalf of the European Union, reiterating Europe’s commitment to the development of a voluntary code of conduct that could include “development of best practices for safer traffic management” and “measures to strengthen mutual understanding and confidence among spacefaring nations and actors and to develop means of communication and consultation among them in order to avoid collisions involving space objects.” The upshot? The committee “was of the view that all these matters merited further consideration.” With regards to a new formal agenda item on space sustainability, France punted its proposal until next year’s meeting. As for Brachet’s wider proposal, the Czech government weighed in with comments primarily focused on the question of involving the Legal Subcommittee in development of potentially legally binding space rules–an issue that will eventually require resolution. That discussion, too, will continue.

But this is not to say that nothing happened, or is happening.

Perhaps most interesting, in February Brachet put together an informal working group comprised primarily of government officials from the key Western space powers and representatives of the global telecommunications industry to flesh out what might be included in a broad regime to ensure the sustainable, long-term use of space. The group met in the sidelines of the COPUOS session and is scheduled to meet again in September at the International Astronautical Congress and Exhibition in Glasgow. The involvement of the globalized telecommunications industry is a critical factor in these discussions, as it reveals a certain level of concern about protecting the multibillion dollar business of space. Industry is beginning to accept the need for traffic management–that is, processes for avoiding interference or collisions in space–to ensure this protection. The group, however, does not include representatives of Russia or China, apparently by their own choice, which may raise some political frictions down the road.

While it hesitated to present code of conduct language for formal consideration at the COPUOS meeting, the EU intends to begin discussing the code with other nations this fall on a bilateral basis, and expects to present a final version to COPUOS next year. Code provisions, according to an EU statement to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2007, could include: “a commitment to prevent space from becoming an area of conflict;” constraints on satellite maneuvers and prior notification of close approaches; and conflict resolution processes. Notably, the Czech Republic, which is counterintuitively a primary player in international space policy debates, will follow France as the next EU president in December, and the two governments have already begun consultations on how to take EU space initiatives forward next year.

Finally, “space sustainability” has become a buzzword not just at COPUOS but also among a wide variety of global space stakeholders–and a coded acknowledgement of the need for new international processes to underpin that sustainability. That recognition is, in and of itself, progress.

What next? The Science and Technical Subcommittee is tentatively scheduled to meet February 2-20, 2009, followed by the Legal Subcommittee March 23-April 3. The next full COPUOS meeting is slated for June 3-12, 2009 in Vienna. We should expect that space traffic management and “rules of the road” will be on the agenda at each.

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