The United Nations Could Finally Create New Rules for Space

By Ramin Skibba

On Monday, a group of diplomats from the United Kingdom proposed that the United Nations set up a group to develop new norms of international behavior in space, with the aim of preventing the kinds of misunderstandings that could lead to war. As spacefaring nations advance their military satellite capabilities, including being able to disrupt or damage other satellites, such provocative behavior could escalate already-tense diplomatic situations—and create more space debris in low earth orbit, a crucial region that’s already chock-full of derelict spacecraft.

This is the first significant progress in developing space rules in more than four decades. The most important piece of space law, the Outer Space Treaty, was negotiated by the fledgling space powers in 1967. “Meanwhile, space is getting increasingly complicated,” says Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado. There are many players in space now; new kinds of cyberweapons and lasers can jam, dazzle, or spoof satellites; and tens of thousands of satellites are orbiting in the sky.

“There’s an understanding that, if we don’t get this right, we wreck the space environment,” says David Edmondson, who leads the UK’s effort as the country’s policy head of space security and advanced threats. “If we don’t get this right, we risk getting into conflict, because people don’t have rules of the road at the moment. So that’s what we want to create, but it takes time.”

Monday’s vote before the UN's First Committee, which is focused on international security and disarmament, passed overwhelmingly, with representatives of 163 countries voting yea versus eight nays and nine abstentions. Considering the widespread support for the proposal, including backing from the Biden administration, Edmondson expects it to pass in the full UN General Assembly next month.

The proposal would create a new working group at the UN that will meet twice a year in Geneva in 2022 and 2023. By the end of that time, the group must reach consensus on new rules and identify areas in need of further investigation. Crafting norms for the kinds of activities that escalate tensions or generate debris will likely be top priority for this group, says Cassandra Steer, an expert on space law and space security at the Australian National University in Canberra.

While the US representatives approved the UK-led proposal, those from the other two most influential space powers, Russia and China, were among the “nay” votes. Those nations’ opposition stems from a longtime debate over whether to instead focus efforts at the UN on negotiating new treaties among all nations with spacecraft, because treaties carry more weight and can be more clearly enforceable. For example, China and Russia have been pushing for a resolution preventing an arms race in outer space, as well as a new international treaty against deploying any weapons in space. Currently, only nukes are outlawed in space.

But those ideas haven’t gained traction with the US and its allies. In fact, US representatives have voted against such proposals for years, arguing that there are no weapons in space and therefore no arms race to address. (In the 1980s, President Reagan championed the idea of developing space-based missile interceptors as part of the short-lived “Star Wars” concept. While a few policymakers today, like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, continue to advocate for them, no one has yet designed or launched such weapons.) “The US and its partners have been instrumental in blocking any progress with treaties and binding norms,” Steer says.