Op’Ed: Thoughts on UN COPUOS

By Mehak Sarang

How do we govern space? This is a difficult question. It cuts across technological, policy, and legal considerations, across country borders and generations. Furthermore, as a global commons, it is in the interest of almost all countries to ensure that the benefits of space can be shared equally among nations; essential to this idea is ensuring peace in space.

Thus, perhaps the more accurate question would be: how will the global community peacefully and equitably share the benefits and resources of this new frontier, while taking into account the vast inequalities that exist here on our Earth that may be inherently prohibitive to this goal?

Developed following two world wars and in the midst of the Cold War, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) provides a forum for countries to develop answers to these future-facing problems. In 1967, the committee drafted and adopted the Outer Space Treaty, a far-reaching document designed to delineate the kinds of activities permitted in outer space. Adopted 10 years after Sputnik launched, the document remains relevant and useful today as thousands of sophisticated satellites, man-made rovers and orbiters traverse outer space and our surrounding bodies.

Since those initial meetings, when the committee was comprised of 18 countries, COPUOS has grown to 93 member states, making it one of the largest committees in the UN. In addition to the member states, permanent observers line the outer walls of the chambers, representing organizations such as the European Space Agency, the International Space University, and the delegation from SGAC.

The key to understanding COPUOS is that, first and foremost, the forum is primarily a diplomatic one. Sitting at the country desks are representatives from permanent UN missions, not heads of space agencies. As a result, conversations tend towards high-level, diplomatic concerns, with a fraction of the time spent on technical presentations and considerations.

The session opened with a proposal from the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea to join the committee. This was met with quite a bit of resistance. Countries supporting the proposal (Russia, China, Venezuela, among others) argued that all UN member countries should be allowed to join the forum. They encouraged the inclusion of new members, arguing that the simple act of joining the forum was an indication that the country intended to commit to using space for peaceful purposes. Other countries (Canada, USA, UK, among others) argued that the DPRK’s possession and demonstration of ICBMs in airspace was in clear violation of the spirit of the committee, and thus barred the country from joining the forum. Apparently much like last year, the discussion ended in a standstill, with no decision being reached, and presumably left to be discussed in the same manner the following year. 

This initial session turned out to be drastically different from the succeeding days. Most of the two-week affair was comprised of a “general exchange of views”. Countries were given fifteen minutes to address the floor. For the most part, they used this time to boast a laundry list of accomplishments in space, repeatedly recommitting their commitment to the mission of the committee and opposition to militarization of space. Delegates read from carefully-prepared statements in a choreographed, civil exchange of the official positions of their states. As an outsider, it felt like an elaborate show. The recent Indian anti-satellite test (which was almost universally admonished by the international community) and the announcement of the US Space Force, two advancements which seem contradictory to the peaceful uses of outer space, went entirely unacknowledged. What was the virtue of this forum, if these issues couldn’t be discussed?

Sometimes, whispers of conflict emerged. A few countries, mostly Latin American ones, (a nod to their history of adopting the role of spokesperson for the developing world) voiced their concerns regarding sustainability in space exploration, and how the advancement of activities like in-space mining and exploration would leave room for developing nations to benefit from in-space resources in an equitable way. There was also a notable call for GEOstationary orbits to be classified as limited resources, a plea they have been pursuing for decades now. Specifically, these nations called for regulations — for legally-binding rules to govern outer-space activities, and for it to be done quickly. However, if there is one thing the UN known for, it’s definitely not for being speedy.

Perhaps there is something comforting about the fact that the process of deciding what to do with outer space resources, governing the space commons, and preventing the weaponization of space is a slow process. Those things should take time to decide, especially because COPUOS acts on consensus, something unique to this committee. But, as some SGAC colleagues mentioned, technology tends to advance on time horizons magnitudes faster than the committee, out-pacing any potential regulations. That is worrisome. 

So what are the virtues of this platform? As one representative from the US delegation explained, this is a unique forum; it’s the only multilateral platform for the discussion of matters of outer space affairs. As such, at least countries are somewhat aware of other nations’ priorities in space activities. 

And sometimes, they do actually achieve results. On the final day of the committee, a plan for long-term sustainability in space was adopted by the forum, something that took eight years to develop. This was a rare occurrence, as the committee chair noted addressing the forum, “you can call your other friends at the UN and let them know we actually did something”. Led by the South African mission, the 21 adopted guidelines provide, “guidance on policy and regulatory framework for space activities; safety of space operations; international cooperation, capacity-building and awareness; and scientific and technical research and development”. Upon its adoption, the floor erupted in applause. People were shaking hands, coming together, and sharing celebratory drinks afterwards. Even though it took eight years, this was something notable.

It’s humbling sitting in the chamber in that little conference hall with officials from around the world. Perhaps most humbling is that these people, few of which have been elected to the positions they hold, are deciding the rules of human exploration into space. Those decisions are made in that room, through years of deliberations. Many of us don’t know what goes on in that room, or in the minds of those people, and yet, they will decide the fate of the asteroids, moons, and planets in our solar system. They will be responsible, to some degree, in ensuring constellations of satellites aren’t the only constellations we can see in the night sky.

Mehak Sarang is currently on a year-long travel fellowship studying the future of the space industry in countries around the world. At SGAC, she is a member of the Strategic Partnership Team.