UN Charter Day
In San Francisco, during the final months of the Second World War, 50 governments met to develop an organisation devoted to ensuring that the hard-won peace would be preserved. The result was the UN Charter, signed 75 years ago today, and the United Nations Organization. In many ways, such as the composition of the Security Council, the UN is very much a product of its time, but while we wouldn’t design it that way today we probably wouldn’t be able to establish an equivalent either. Indeed, a year later it would probably have proved impossible. Yet for all the not entirely undeserved criticism the UN receives, the UN is the keystone of the international governance regime, and provides the foundation, framework, and central forum for the outer space governance regime. And it has been reasonably successful in maintaining the peace on Earth and in Outer Space.
The theme of #UN75 is ‘Shaping Our Future Together’, and the UN asks us to look ahead, to the centenary of the United Nations and consider what kind of world we want in 2045. At times that world might seem bleak, we’re seeing a breakdown of the global order, particularly the American led order (and especially since 2016 the main enemy of that order seems to be the United States itself). Further, we’re seeing a breakdown of the arms control regime and the supposedly ‘inevitable’ weaponization of outer space is being championed. But not all hope has yet been lost, and the UN is one of the, admittedly wonky, beacons of such hope.
The UN in Space
The United Nations plays a significant role in space governance and has done so since the very beginning. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is perhaps the most visible element of this. UNOOSA is the secretariat of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) and runs a number of initiatives linking space activities to the wider UN agenda (such as Space4SDGS which endeavours to connect the activities of the space sectors, especially the commercial, private sector to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.) It also maintains a library of UN space law instruments and the registry of space objects, among other things (such as UN-SPIDER a platform for using space assets for disaster management and response). The UN has also started to play more of a role in monitoring the threat posed by asteroids, indeed the UN sponsored Asteroid Day is coming up on 30 June (see our briefing paper on planetary defence). That said, it doesn’t do all things space, UNOOSA as the secretariat for the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space focuses on the ‘peaceful’ side of space governance.
UNCOPUOS is the primary international forum for discussing space governance, it was started as an ad hoc committee in 1958 with 18 member states but has grown into a permanent committee of 95 member states. It has two subcommittees, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee. They meet in Vienna, Austria and report to the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly. UNCOPUOS produced the five UN space law treaties and a host of resolutions and non-binding space governance instruments. The Legal Subcommittee discusses a range of issues from the definition and delimitation of outer space to national space law legislation and most recently legal developments relating to space resources. In addition to producing instruments (albeit mainly non-binding ones these days) this provides an important international forum for states to express their views on space governance issues, which, especially for those ‘non-spacefaring states’ can be an important part of the development of international law if those statements rise to the level of opinio juris or State Practice (which would necessitate more discussion than this post has the space to undertake.)
Then there’s the ITU. The ITU is a specialised agency of the United Nations, which means that it is essentially run as its own organisation within the UN family. There are a bunch of these organisations, many like the ITU predate the UN by decades, in the case of the ITU it is nearly a century. The ITU is the International Telecommunications Union, and it governs, surprisingly enough, telecommunications, which for space largely means radiofrequency spectrum. This needs a global coordinating body in order to ensure that there isn’t interference by two people trying to use the same frequency. This is very important, without it much of the modern telecommunications infrastructure simply wouldn’t work. The ITU is one of the beacons of multilateralism and peaceful cooperation that exemplify the quiet success of the UN system.
As mentioned UNCOPUOS focuses on the peaceful uses of outer space, the main multilateral forum for ‘security’ related discussions in the Conference on Disarmament which isn’t formally part of the UN system, it exists independently but is supported by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and meets in the Palais des Nations which is the UN Office in Geneva. The UN also has the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) which produces excellent research on space security issues, among many other things. UN involvement in security related matters is perhaps underdeveloped compared to those subjects dealt with specifically by UNCOPUOS and ITU but part of that is due to the way in which states jealously guard their competence on national security issues (which is understandable). However, there’s also a more positive way of looking at it, the Outer Space Treaty has succeeded in keeping outer space a peaceful domain. As Michael Krepon and Christopher Clary have argued, the weaponization of outer space is not inevitable, if it was it would have happened during the Cold War. The current ‘space security problems’ aren’t problems with the space governance regime per se but symptoms of the broader breakdown of global order.
The point of this exercise was to take up the UN’s call to look forward to the world of the centenary of the United Nations. At times that world might seem bleak, we’re seeing a breakdown of the global order, particularly the American led order (and especially since 2016 the main enemy of that order seems to be the United States itself). As space becomes commercialised there are concerns about the increasing ‘unilateral’ or ‘fragmented’ approach to space governance. The Artemis Accords, for example, are a potential example of this danger as ‘likeminded’ States seek to band together outside of the UNCOPUOS system. In addition to the potential danger of competing legal regimes and the resulting fragmentation of the space governance system, there is the reality that this will undoubtedly result in freezing the ‘developing’ world out of the conversation, even more so than is already the case.
Further, the weaponization of space is becoming an increasingly real possibility. Anti-satellite weapons have proliferated and if any norms have developed in that area they are unfortunately permissive. Space is increasingly being seen as a ‘strategic’ resource, and if some of the plans proposed for things like space mining come to fruition the ‘strategic value’ of outer space is only likely to increase, and states defend ‘strategic’ interests with force. So the ‘peaceful’ days of outer space might be numbered, despite Article I of the Outer Space Treaty.
However, the UN can play an important role in preventing that. The UN “is the only real forum for world opinion…” and while General Assembly Resolutions are not binding, they are “often a good barometer of international opinion…” That isn’t meaningless whatever the critics may claim. Indeed, legal scholars argue that they can help drive the development of international law. Scharf argues that the value of General Assembly Resolutions and the process of their creation has enabled a shift in focus from state practice to opinio juris in the development of customary international law. This is because resolutions and the debates that their development generates provides written evidence of the thoughts of States. 
This is true in outer space, as in terrestrial matters. It can be seen in the ongoing debate and discussion on space resources, there will only be a few States that actively participate in space mining but through the UN and UNCOPUOS all States, regardless of their technological capabilities can be involved in the debate and discussion, and can push or thwart the development of customary international law and associated norms.
Further, while UNCOPUOS is as dominated by power politics as any other aspect of global governance, perhaps exacerbated by the necessity of unanimous support for resolutions of the Committee, as has been proven by the Landmine Convention, the Cluster Munitions Convention, UNCLOS and the Nuclear Weapons Ban treaty the opposition of the powerful States of the world doesn’t have to be a block to the development of international law. While on the one hand efforts to force the nuclear states to live up to their agreed commitments in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty might seem futile, endeavours such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons are a clear signal that most of the States of this world think that nuclear weapons should be illegal. That isn’t meaningless. The landmine and cluster munitions treaties made it harder (at least until the current occupant of the White House) for the United States to use these weapons even though they aren’t party to the treaties, because they care about the opinion of the international community (again at least until the current occupant of the White House) and these treaties made it very clear that the international community rejects these weapons. The space community could do something similar on ASAT testing, or STM, or space resources. Granted ‘moral force’ isn’t a great tool but the UN does make it easier for small and weaker states, especially when they band together, to make their voices harder to ignore. The UN provides a platform for the Global South and ‘likeminded’ states to take a stand against the so-called ‘Great Powers’, it is imperative that it is used to maintain the peace in outer space.
Shaping Our Future Together
The preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, binding on just about every country in the world, declares that "We the Peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war..." resolve "...to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security"... and "...that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest..." A noble, worthwhile purpose, as valid on Earth as in outer space, and we must together, shape our future in order to ensure that it remains the foundational principle of the international order in 2045. That the hard-won peace established in 1945 is persevered for the celebration of the centenary of UN Charter Day. A more peaceful, cooperative world is the future I want, that’s the future I want to shape, on Earth and in outer space, and it can only be done together.
Happy 75th Charter Day to the United Nations and to all its people
The opinions expressed in these blogs posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization or anyone else.
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See, generally, Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro The Internationalists And Their Plan To Outlaw War (Penguin 2017) https://www.unoosa.org/ https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/space4sdgs/index.html https://www.spacefaringcivilization.space/briefing-papers https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/copuos/members/evolution.html https://www.itu.int/en/pages/default.aspx https://www.un.org/disarmament/ https://www.unidir.org/ Michael Krepon and Christopher Clary Space Assurance or Space Dominance? The Case Against Weaponizing Space (The Henry L. Stimson Center 2003) Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: The United Nations and the Quest for World Government (Penguin 2007), 275 Michael P. Scharf ‘Accelerated Formation of Customary International Law’ (2014) 20 ILSA Journal of International and Comparative Law 305, 312 UN Charter, Preamble