Session 4 of the #SpaceThreatsOEWG: What to look for this week

August 30, 2023

This is report-writing week at the United Nations (UN) Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on space threats. A final report on the discussion and outcomes of the previous three sessions is intended to be provided this fall to the UN General Assembly, but only if it can be adopted by consensus.

As the Group’s Chair acknowledged, differing views on the nature of space threats and how to ameliorate them pose a challenge to securing agreement on the final report and any possible recommendations. But where the Chair “smells” a possibility for consensus, China “smells tension.”

To secure agreement on a final document, India proposed that the report highlight consensus where it exists and note the variety of views where it does not. That might work for the description of the discussion, but it’s not clear what – if any – recommendations might be adopted.

The following issues stand out from Monday’s formal exchange of views:

  1. “Responsible behaviour”: Some states continue to object to this concept, which underpins the mandate of the OEWG. They argue that it is subjective and fuzzy and/or binary and political. Iran calls it an “oxymoron.”  
  2. International law: States fundamentally agree on the applicability of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) and other sources of international law – in particular, the UN Charter. However, there is resistance by some states to including any reference to international humanitarian law (IHL), which applies during times of armed conflict. Still, many states referenced the importance of the applicability of IHL as well as work by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on this topic. This concept seems to have drawn less opposition than in the past. So, perhaps some diplomatic wording could be worked out, but my sense is that it is still contentious.
  3. Scope: States that do not support the OEWG focus on “norms of responsible state behaviour” claim that their views are not adequately reflected in the draft report. Some states also protest that the report does not note ALL issues raised during the discussion (which might pertain, for example, to the claims that commercial mega constellations pose a threat to national sovereignty). However, others see the report as too encompassing. They resist any mention of suggested recommendations that are not agreed to or fully worked out.
  4. Destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) tests: There was significant OEWG discussion on such tests, including on the growing international moratorium on destructive direct-ascent (DA) ASAT tests. However, China suggested this week that such tests are not a pressing threat. India has reservations about the language used in the existing draft report but is providing suggestions. I think that it would be difficult and disingenuous NOT to include mention of these tests and the moratorium in a final report, and, under ideal circumstances, within the scope of recommendations. Most resistance to date has taken the perspective that restrictions on destructive tests don’t go far enough; this week, the counterpoint seems to focus on the need to respect the mandate/work of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).
  5. Rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs): Several states mentioned the need for rules on RPOs. I’m not sure if there is sufficient agreement on specific rules of conduct, or if broader obligations such as pre-notifications might be pursued. This could be a topic to be pursued later.
  6. Inclusivity/multi-stakeholder approach: This approach, along with norms, represents the OEWG’s raison d’être. During Monday’s session, many states noted the value of this approach, including contributions from nongovernmental organizations.
  7. Human impacts and gendered perspectives: As well as recognition of IHL and international human rights law, Canada asked for recognition of the need for gender-inclusive perspectives and recommendations, noting the disproportionate ways in which the effects of space insecurity are experienced across social groupings based on gender, sexuality, geography, and socioeconomic conditions.
  8. Weapons: One of Russia’s key recommendations is not to develop, deploy, or test weapons in space. Now, the focus of the OEWG is on behaviours and not capabilities, and “use of force” is already covered by the UN Charter. While “testing,” “deploying,” etc. are activities, many other states have insisted that it’s not clear what counts as a weapon and how to tell if one has been deployed.
  9. Legally binding instrument: The objective of the OEWG is not linked to negotiating a legally binding instrument, even though many states want this outcome. Some states clearly want the recommendations to include such an instrument. But I think that most states would agree that the OEWG should help to inform the upcoming Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), which will focus on elements of a possible legal agreement.
  10. A renewed mandate: Many states expressed the view that the current round of OEWG sessions leaves many details to be worked out and want to include a recommendation to renew the mandate. But a few states responded with “too soon to tell.”

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