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Pay Attention to U.N. Efforts to Create Space Policy

By | February 1, 2010

      A committee of the United Nations dedicated to the peaceful use of outer space has proposed the creation of a U.N. space policy. Would this be a good thing? Is anybody paying attention to this proposal?

      The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is a U.N. body created in 1959 that meets about once a year to discuss international cooperation and study legal problems arising from the use of outer space. At its 52nd meeting in June, the idea was floated of creating a U.N. space policy. We have seen little discussion or notice of this concept, but it will be on the agenda at the next COPUOS meeting in July.

      The concept paper is labeled “space policy,” but it is all about use of satellites. Satellite operators and users perhaps should look at this concept early in its inception rather than at the end stages. Otherwise, the sector could be faced with the same results as came from work on an international convention concerning satellite financing — that is, an international proposal that operators do not want and financing does not need but which has years of momentum behind it.

      There are good intentions and language in the concept paper. For instance, there are statements about the “growing reliance on space technology” and a nice passage noting that “satellite communication has become the most powerful engine of growth for development.” Industry also should be happy with a theme of promoting enhanced “space awareness” at all levels in the U.N., another goal of the paper.

      By contrast, in the category of unfortunate language, the introduction of the paper argues that the international community is entering into an era of “shared global utilities from space.” Few industry sectors want to be labeled “utilities,” with all the baggage of excessive regulation that implies.

      More difficult, however, there are also worrisome statements that point to a turf-grabbing mentality.

      The paper claims that the space environment is being internationalized and globalized because there are more countries seeking to develop or extend their space capabilities, which in its view points to a need for establishing more standards. There is an explicit call to replace national bodies involved in rulemaking on the uses of outer space with an “integrated approach” under the auspices of the United Nation.

      The paper encourages countries to establish regional space agencies that could, for example, share geostationary orbits for satellite communications. Even in the European Union’s space policy, however, which presumes cooperation with the regional European Space Agency (ESA), there is no inclination to replace communication satellite filings by national operators with a set of ESA operations.

      Even more directly, the COPUOS paper says that “the management of the Earth’s orbital environment should not be left to individual states or agencies.” This concept contextually is aimed mostly at problems relating to space debris, but the wording is broader and also calls for monitoring compliance with international space treaties with totally open-ended implications. There also is the broad hint that this approach could improve COPUOS funding, as the paper around this point notes that it lacks sufficient budget to implement a U.N. space policy.

      The U.N. relies on space systems for its day-to-day operations and effectiveness, according to the paper, presumably referring to communications and sensing applications. Nevertheless, the paper protests that U.N. space activities are “fragmented geographically and thematically,” because there are numerous places where satellite issues are discussed in the U.N. without coordination. Among the list is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Subsequently, the paper calls for an “integrated approach” to improve the interaction among these bodies. We suspect that far more debate and review should be conducted before the ITU’s mission and operations are modified in any such “integrated” way.

      The conclusion of the paper says that “a world without a U.N. Space Policy would be lacking a key element to face the future with confidence, to improve current mechanisms for the exploration and uses of outer space, and to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities.” The satellite sector certainly wants to face the future with confidence, but there may be a lack of confidence that all of the ideas in this concept paper are the way to do it.

      Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Hogan & Hartson Brussels office.

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