Star-crossed States: No result from the UN Working Group on Reducing Space Threats

3D render of planet Earth viewed from space, with night lights in Europe and sun rising over Asia. Blue hue treatment. Elements from NASA (

By Paul Meyer,
Published by Open Canada, 24 September 2023

The long-standing goal of preventing an arms race in outer space could be slipping away

It has become a challenge these days to keep up with the exponential growth in the number of satellites orbiting this planet. Current estimates of active satellites are upwards of 6000 with tens of thousands more launches planned by the end of the decade. The private sector is driving this growth with Elon Musk’s Starlink telecommunication constellation constituting almost half of the satellites operating in low earth orbit (the closest and most congested orbital slot). 

The world is increasingly dependent on satellites to provide a vast spectrum of services essential for global security and well-being, and it is all the more regrettable therefore that this surge of activity in outer space is coinciding with what appears to be a nadir in the level of cooperation amongst leading space powers. Although objectively it would be in the interests of all spacefaring states, and the entire international community reliant on space-enabled services, to cooperate to ensure the continued safe and secure utilisation of outer space, the current situation is fraught with tension and mistrust. For over 40 years the UN has sought to prevent an arms race in outer space, but besides the repeated declarations that this remains a common goal there is little evidence of meaningful efforts to ensure it. 

It was back in 1981 that the “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space” (aka PAROS) item was added to the agenda of the UN General Assembly and the negotiating forum of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. While member states agreed to put this topic on the UN’s agenda, ever since they have held contending views as to how best to make progress on outer space security. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (with 112 states parties) provided some common ground in calling for the peaceful uses of outer space and prohibiting the stationing in orbit of weapons of mass destruction, but was silent on other types of weaponry. Although the treaty required its parties to exercise “due regard” for the space operations of other states and to avoid “harmful interference” with such operations these terms have lacked a common understanding as to their import.  

The Cold War era development of space weapons including anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) demonstrated that the legal regime established by the Outer Space Treaty was insufficient to ensure that the peace was kept in outer space and almost all states agreed that “further measures” would be required to strengthen it. This broad consensus that the Outer Space Treaty needed to be reinforced with complementary agreements however, quickly broke down over the specific content and form such additional measures should take. 

One camp led by China and Russia, although including many other states such as Brazil, India, Mexico and Indonesia, favours legally binding agreements to supplement the Outer Space Treaty. They argue that only legal agreements will have the authority and staying power to ensure compliance with their provisions. Political measures at best might supplement a legally binding instrument, but could never substitute for one.

The other camp led by the United States, supported by many of its allies, argue that at this stage it is best to develop politically binding measures, such as so-called Transparency and Confidence Building Measures . Adherents of this approach argue that the negotiation of a legally binding agreement would take too long and would flounder over issues of definition and verification. In their view, settling on a set of practical measures would be a quicker and more effective means of agreeing “rules of the road” for state-conducted space operations. 

This argument over the best diplomatic path to take to prevent armed conflict in space has gone on for decades without a resolution. As a result, in recent years the relations among leading space powers have deteriorated significantly with mutual accusations of “weaponizing” outer space and the development of “counter-space capabilities” in the arsenals of states.  After a long hiatus in the testing of destructive ASATs, a series of these tests were conducted by China in 2007, the US in 2008, India in 2019 and Russia in 2021. All of these kinetic tests, in which the weapon destroys its target by colliding with it, contributed  to the already alarming problem of debris in the busy low earth orbit that threatens the safe operation of spacecraft. Unfortunately, the space arms race seems to be escalating at the very time when self-interested restraint would be in order.

The last two years has witnessed a new approach to the diplomacy of space security which held much promise, but now appears to have fallen victim to the hostile environment described above.  On the basis of an innovative UK diplomatic initiative the UN General Assembly authorized an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on “Reducing Space Threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours”. This OEWG met for four sessions in 2022 and 2023 with its final session concluding on September 1 in Geneva. To the dismay of many non-governmental stakeholders, the group despite four lively and substantive sessions, was not able to agree on a final report, which required consensus approval. Worse, even the usual procedural report was rejected principally at the insistence of the Russian delegation. The chief Russian delegate in his final statement was gleeful in highlighting the failure of the OEWG, a failure that he had brought about by his delegation’s rejection of the Chair’s compromise text and the extreme measure of scuttling even the anodyne procedural report normally sent to the General Assembly. It was as if Russia wanted to pretend that the OEWG hadn’t existed. 

In the face of this debacle, the UK Ambassador tried to put a positive gloss on the proceedings. In his concluding statement he explained the initiative was aimed at “breaking the stalemate we perceived in multilateral diplomacy on outer space security”. He went on to note that “given the complex and rapidly changing nature of the outer space domain, in which many capabilities are dual-use or opaque, we need an approach that proceeds from the basis of behaviours of States, rather than just the capabilities they possess.” He then made an appeal that “…we should use the full range of normative tools available to us, whether legally binding or non-legally binding measures” and suggested that states should employ the tools at hand to mitigate threats now, adding “we simply do not have the luxury of further inaction”.

It is likely that supporters of the OEWG will move to extend this process via a new authorizing resolution next month during the UN General Assembly. Canada was one of 34 states supporting a joint statement delivered by the Philippine delegation at the conclusion of the session which voiced appreciation for the OEWG process “which has inspired open, substantive, interactive and enlightening discussions pertaining to outer space security”. The statement indicated that the legally and politically binding approaches were not mutually exclusive and expressed the view that a follow-up process to the OEWG would be useful.

While many in civil society and the private sector would agree that a continuation of an inclusive inter-governmental discussion of outer space security is desirable, there will be little merit in one if it only serves as a platform for the opposing camps to talk past one another. Even if it might be cumbersome to get underway, perhaps the time has come to recognize that neither the legal or political camp is going to prevail over the other. 

This suggests that two negotiating processes should be launched under UN auspices to accommodate each of the camps preferred approach. This would mean one process to develop a set of Transparency and Confidence Building Measures supporting greater transparency and safer operations in outer space and the other to begin the work to elaborate a legally binding instrument that would incorporate measures to prevent armed conflict in outer space and reinforce the existing legal regime represented by the Outer Space Treaty

Even this Solomonic conclusion may not be easy to bring about, but it will be preferable to continuing the heated, adversarial and ultimately unproductive debate over which diplomatic road to take to realize the long-standing goal of preventing an arms race in outer space.  As the UK Ambassador noted, the international community can ill afford more inaction on the sensitive space security file. 

For a more detailed account of how the theme of outer space security has been treated in the multilateral arena see the author’s July 2023 article in “The RUSI Journal”: Can Outer Space be Kept Free of Armed Conflict?

See: Original Article