UN Secretary-General issues policy brief on outer space governance ahead of Summit of the Future

Following up on the Our Common Agenda report and in the lead-up to the Summit of the Future – expected to be held in 2024 – the UN Secretary-General has issued a policy brief on outer space governance. The seventh in his series of briefs dedicated to supporting member states in their deliberations as they prepare for the Summit, the brief explores challenges for the sustainability, safety, and security of outer space and outlines several governance recommendations to ‘maximise the opportunities of outer space while minimising short-term and long-term risks’. 

The brief starts by exploring three main drivers of change when it comes to ‘humanity’s access to and operations in outer space’: the growing number of satellites launched to orbit; the participation of the private sector; and commitments from governments and private actors to return to deep space. It then maps existing outer space governance mechanisms and processes, from the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the five UN treaties adopted between 1967 and 1979, to the various guidelines, frameworks, and recommendations on issues such as space debris mitigation and confidence-building measures and the ongoing open-ended working group on reducing space threats.

The following two sections of the brief look at opportunities and challenges related to outer space. Among the opportunities are the use of satellites for earth observation, the promises of space-based communication networks, the role of global navigation satellite systems in supporting various transportation systems, and the conduction of scientific experiments in space. Challenges range from limited space traffic coordination and the absence of an international mechanism to monitor space debris and facilitate its removal, to lack of legal clarity on the exploration and exploitation of space resources and the risks of conflict in outer space. 

Finally, the Secretary-General outlines several recommendations when it comes to the governance of outer space:

  • Sustainability of outer space: COPUOS to develop (a) a unified regime for space sustainability or (b) governance frameworks for various areas of space sustainability to address issues related to space traffic management, space debris removal, and space resource activities. 
  • Security of outer space: Member states to develop international norms, rules, and principles to address threats to space systems and to launch negotiations of a treaty to ensure peace, security, and the prevention of an arms race in outer space. 
  • Inclusive approaches to outer space governance: Member states to facilitate the participation of commercial actors, civil society, and other relevant actors in the work of outer space-related intergovernmental processes.