The Open-Ended Working Group on Space Threats: Recap of the second meeting, September 2022

January 11, 2023

Jessica West

Following the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that failed to produce a final document, the second of four scheduled meetings of the United Nations (UN) Open-Ended Working Group to Reduce Space Threats (OEWG) took place in Geneva from September 12-16, 2022. The OEWG is mandated to develop recommendations on possible norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviour and how they might contribute to a legally binding instrument.

The first session took stock of the existing international legal and normative framework (read the recap). The second went from existing law to current and future threats by states to space systems, including “actions, activities and omissions that could be considered irresponsible.” This comprehensive discussion was organized into five themes:

  • Nature and uses of the outer space environment and space systems in relation to current and future threats by states to space systems
  • Current and future Earth-to-space threats by states to space systems
  • Current and future space-to-space threats by states to space systems
  • Current and future space-to-Earth threats by states to space systems
  • Current and future Earth-to-Earth threats by states to space systems.

Presentations on these topics by global experts can be found here.

Building on the positive attitude and constructive engagement of the first meeting, the second nurtured interactive engagement and frank and substantive discussion, enlivened by references to hypothetical murder with icicles and shoes. The meeting saw statements delivered by 39 states and on behalf of the  European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

While some states continued to express concern that notions of responsible and irresponsible behaviour are subjective, the session produced a significant number of examples of capabilities, activities, behaviours, and their effects that were deemed to be threatening and thus irresponsible. Both kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities and their uses were discussed, as were concerns for effects on environmental sustainability, civilian critical infrastructure, and conflict escalation.

Also discussed were reassuring behaviours that might be considered responsible, many of which have strong links to the principle of due regard as expressed in Article 9 of the Outer Space Treaty (OST); and   possible restrictions and restraints on particularly egregious capabilities and activities, such as destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tests and other weapons capabilities in space, and additional initiatives to advance such restrictions at the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

Following is a more detailed recap of key points of discussion and debate.

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