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New Momentum in Outer Space Governance?

Is there new momentum in space law or the global governance of outer space more broadly? The German government seems to think so – in its recently released National Security Strategy, developing and updating the outer space regime features as one of the major space-related agenda items. Possibly this is just reflexive multilateralism without substance, which would hardly be surprising. (German governments have never seen a multilateral initiative they don’t like.) However, there are some indications of movement in the outer space regime, leading my SichTRaum colleague Maximilian Bertamini to call it „The Most Exciting Field of International Law“ in a Völkerrechtsblog post, which I encourage you to read.

Politically, it seems that the window of opportunity is opening just a crack. For a long time, the „Five Treaties“ system was generally considered outdated, minimalist, and sclerotic. These points are still correct. The system of outer space governance is terribly top-heavy, far too centered around intergovernmental decisions at the UN which effectively preclude any attempt at institutional reform. This is why I’ve been consistently critical of calls for new institutions or treaties to regulate this or that particular issue. Instead, I prefer a polycentric approach that looks for ways of empowering existing networks and coordinating their efforts.

Forced Optimism at the UN?

But maybe the present regime has some potential for change. At least the United Nations seem to think so. Undersecretary-General Ryder is quoted as saying:

“We have a window of opportunity over the next 15 months … where we can accelerate space diplomacy and advance the governance issue.” (SpaceNews, 14 June 2023).

The 15-month timeframe refers to the run-up to the 2024 Summit of the Future, a high-level intergovernmental event at the UN in September 2024. Situated at the midpoint of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) process, the Summit is envisioned as a forum to discuss critical challenges and define the global policy agenda for the next few years. Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me, even though I consistently argue in favor it), advancing the peaceful and sustainable use of outer space is listed as one of eleven „Areas of Potential Action“ by the Secretariat.

All Goal, No Process

One immediate output is this UN policy brief which is, regrettably, all about goals without outlining the process. Much of it is lays out the current challenges (space debris, more satellites, traffic management, conflict prevention) and opportunities of space, especially for the SDGs. The proposals that follow are ambitious and bland at the same time. The Secretary-General calls for a „unified regime for space sustainability“ or, failing that, „new governance frameworks for various areas of space sustainability“ (p. 19), such as traffic management, debris removal, and resource activities. In addition, he calls on member states to „launch negotiations on a treaty to ensure peace, security and the prevention of an arms race in outer space“ (p. 20). These endeavors should be complemented with a commitment to inclusivity, both in terms of gender representation in relevant bodies and participation by the private sector.

To put it as charitably as possible: These are worthy goals. And maybe the policy brief as a document works like that: outline goals, not ways of reaching them. Yet, I would have liked to see more detail on the how. From the document alone, I do not see how the present deadlock can be overcome. And unless there is more going on elsewhere, I do not see where Undersecretary-General Ryder is drawing his optimism from. So, as an avowed fan of the UN: Prove me wrong – please!


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