Geneva launches efforts to set some ground rules in space

The International Space Station on 8 November, 2021. (Credit: NASA)

Renewed efforts to come up with some common rules to govern space have kicked off this week in Geneva, amid growing tensions between Russia and western countries.

Diplomatic delegations are gathering this week in Geneva to discuss space stability. With some 25,000 satellites orbiting around the Earth since 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, and the rising militarisation of space in the last decade, there is growing concern that conflict could ignite at any moment.

The meeting, held at UN Geneva headquarters in Palais des Nations from 9 to 13 May, will be the first of four sessions, in which an open-ended working group composed of all states wishing to participate will try to agree on some common principles to rein in space threats.

The growing number of satellites floating around, most of which are junk, are at risk of colliding with each other, spewing clouds of debris that could slam into other satellites. With services, including weather observation, positioning and communications, increasingly relying on those satellites, a crash could cause major disruptions on Earth activities.

A crash could be perceived by a country as intentional and spark a “cascading conflict”, professor Nayef Al-Rodhan, head of geopolitics and global futures programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told Geneva Solutions.

Even efforts to remove debris and declutter space are cause for suspicion on the fact that cleaning operations could be hiding an alternative motive. The arms race in space in the last 10 years has further made it a breeding ground for mistrust. The development and testing of anti-satellite weapons (ASAT), designed to destroy satellites from the Earth, by the likes of China, India and the US, has increasingly put countries on edge.

“The idea behind ASAT testing is for a state to shoot its own satellite to demonstrate to the others that they could shoot theirs as well,” Al-Rodhan observed. But this “power projection” could come at a high cost, he added, as “the thousands of fragments of space debris produced could become potential threats for kinetic destruction of all space assets. This could clutter space orbits and render them unusable, thus hindering humanity's progress significantly for decades.”

‘No code of conduct’

The outer space treaty sets some principles for the peaceful exploration of outer space for all peoples, but they date all the way back to 1967, making them insufficient at best and obsolete at worst. For example, the treaty bans the placing of nuclear weapons in space but doesn’t mention other types of arms.

It was also crafted by the Soviet Union, the United States and United Kingdom, with their interests at heart. Today there are more than 60 countries that have some sort of space activity without any norms to guide them.

“There is no meaningful code of conduct governing activities in outer space. There's no consensus on how to mitigate conflict. States talk to each other, but none of this is leading anywhere and in any case is not legally binding,” said Al-Rodhan.

Efforts over the years to draw up norms, such as a Russia and China led-proposal for a treaty banning weapons in outer space or a EU-crafted code of conduct for space have all ultimately failed.

The open-ended working group on reducing space threats is the latest attempt at reviving efforts through a UK-led resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2017.

Hellmut Lagos Koller, chair of the group and Chile’s consul in Bolivia, argues that previous proposals have been too specific and have been interpreted by its opponents as promoting the interests of a certain group of countries, rendering them “mutually exclusive”.

The working group he is leading, according to the well-seasoned diplomat, has the advantage of “diplomatic ambiguity”. The mandate of the discussions is so broad that countries have enough wiggle room to shape the agenda and put forward their key concerns. And the current geopolitical context may need just that as countries aren’t even on the same page on what constitutes a threat.

For instance, Russia and China are worried about the US placing weapons in space, while the US is mainly concerned about countries developing ASAT technologies that could shoot down its satellites. The European Union has put greater focus on the risk of a cluttered orbit.

A new space treaty?

The working group could also relaunch serious talk about space treaty negotiations. Cautiously hopeful, Lagos recalls how the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came about similarly, with a UN working group recommending negotiations for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Al-Rodhan is sceptical that governments will agree to a treaty at this stage: “In order to commit to a treaty, states will have to explain more about what they are doing in space. And most states don't want to share such information for national security reasons.”

“Some states are so far ahead of the game that they're not interested in binding themselves with treaties, because their rivals are still far behind; For this to happen near-parity is necessary,” said Al-Rodhan.

Emerging actors also flinch at the prospect of restrictions being imposed before they get to do their own tests. The US’s recent announcement of a self-imposed ban on ASAT testing as part of its efforts to push for “new norms for responsible space behaviour” could be seen as unfair by other countries that are just getting these technologies off the ground.

Beyond conflicting interests and diverging points of view, growing mistrust between the leading powers has been a major stumbling block. The working group could be a step for countries to begin working out their misgivings.

“The main objective here is to overcome distrust between some nations over the perceived intentions of other nations,” Lagos said, who has been trying to convince all delegations to participate.

Initially, the resolution did not receive full support as a number of states, including Russia, China, India and Israel voted against it. But Lagos assured that over 100 countries attended the organisational meeting last month, showing that they are keen on taking part.

Countries with little or no space activities have shown interest in pushing for space safety. They could act as “bridge builders” between rival nations, Lagos says.

Al-Rodhan agrees that the new discussions have a legitimacy that was previously lacking: “despite the UN’s many dysfunctionalities, it is the only meaningful space to hold multilateral discussions about space, besides bilateral talks.”

Bilateral efforts between Russia and the US have been suspended due to the war in Ukraine, leaving that process out of commission for the time being.

Talks underpinned by war in Ukraine

With war raging on in Ukraine, and relations between Russia and western countries at a record low, Lagos acknowledges that he faces enormous challenges to get the discussions off the ground and has even asked delegations to time limit their statements about Ukraine and “refrain from indulging in the discussion”.

“We cannot work in a vacuum. The geopolitical context always has an impact,” he says, “But it also adds an even stronger sense of urgency.”

For Al-Rodhan, the war in Ukraine reveals that “space security is intimately intertwined with terrestrial security”.

“The fracture in the global order and the international system that has happened as a result of the Ukraine conflict, will lead to far less cooperation, less transparency, and therefore more risk in space.”

The working group is expected to meet again in September, followed by two sessions next year.