UN Resolution Seeks to Update Laws Governing Peaceful Use of Space

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A United Nations resolution passed at the beginning of this month outlines the principles of responsible behavior that has the potential to prevent conflict in space, two space policy experts wrote in The Conversation.

To illustrate the urgency and importance of the U.N. General Assembly First Committee’s resolution, two weeks after its approval Russia created a massive debris cloud that threatens many space assets by testing a missile from Earth that destroyed one of its own satellites, Michelle Hanlon and Greg Autry wrote.

The goals of the open-ended working group created by the U.N. resolution are to assess current and future threats to space operations, determine when behavior may be considered irresponsible, “make recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors,” and “contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments” — including a treaty to prevent an “arms race in space,” according to the authors.

Activities in space are governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but Hanlon and Autry point out that the agreement was negotiated when only the United States and Soviet Union had spacefaring capabilities. Although the treaty offers broad principles to guide the activities of nations, it does not provide detailed “rules of the road,” with, for example, the vague military limitations built into the treaty leaving more than enough room for interpretation to result in conflict.

The authors stress that the lines between military and civilian uses are sufficiently indistinct in the 1967 treaty to make a potential conflict more likely than not, adding that increasing commercial operations will also provide opportunities for disputes over operational zones to provoke governmental military responses.

The U.N. resolution passed earlier this month takes an important first step by requiring the newly created working group to meet two times a year in both 2022 and 2023, which can help keep up with the needs of updating a global space policy.

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