Outer Space

Transparency and Confidence Building

Efforts in the United Nations to maintain outer space for peaceful purposes began in 1957, months prior to the launch of the first artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit. Early proposals for prohibiting the use of space for military purposes and the placement of weapons of mass destruction in outer space were considered in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the United Nations.

Existing Legal Framework

The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (“Outer Space Treaty”) entered into force in 1967, after consideration by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the General Assembly. The Treaty provides the basic framework for international space law.

Exhibits at the 1968 UN Conference on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna, Austria
Exhibits at the 1968 UN Conference on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna, Austria

In particular, it prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction in outer space and the stationing of such weapons on celestial bodies. It also establishes basic principles related to the peaceful use of outer space. This includes that the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and that the moon and other celestial bodies shall not be subject to national appropriation or claims of sovereignty.

Efforts by the Conference on Disarmament

Since the early 1980s, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has considered further proposals under the agenda item “prevention of an arms race in outer space”, including draft treaties aimed at preventing the placement of weapons in outer space and prohibiting the use of anti-satellite weapons.

In 2006, the Governments of China and the Russian Federation introduced the draft text of such a treaty to the CD.

The General Assembly has also reserved the right to consider the matter and in 1990 requested the Secretary General, with the assistance of a group of governmental experts, to carry out a study on different confidence-building measures in outer space. That group delivered its report in 1993 (A/48/305).

Current Efforts — Group of Governmental Experts

The Group of Governmental Experts at the Monument to the Explorers of Space on the grounds of the UN Office at Geneva
The Group of Governmental Experts at the Monument to the Explorers of Space on the grounds of the UN Office at Geneva

Initially tabled in the First Committee, the General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/65/68 in January of 2011. The mandate called upon the Secretary-General to establish a group of governmental experts (GGE) to conduct a study on outer space transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs).

The GGE held three sessions: the first and third sessions in New York from  23 to 27 July 2012 and from 8 to 12 July 2013 respectively and the second session in Geneva from 1 to 5 April 2013. The Group submitted its report (A/68/189*) to the General Assembly at its 68th session.

Following extensive and in-depth discussions, the experts agreed upon a set of substantive TCBMs for outer space activities and recommended that States consider and implement them on a voluntary basis. These in particular include the exchange of different types of information relating to States’ space policy and activities, risk reduction notifications and expert visits to national space facilities. The Group has taken stock of numerous proposals from Governments and changes in the political and technological environment since 1993 and considered specific topics related to TCBMs. These included basic principles, criteria, transparency and operational measures and consultative mechanisms, as well as measures of a legally binding nature. The Group agreed to reflect in the study existing commitments related to non-proliferation. The experts also recognized the growing role of international cooperation in outer space activities for building confidence and trust among States. In order to facilitate the implementation of the TCBMs and promote their further development, the GGE recommended establishing coordination between the Office for Disarmament Affairs, the Office for Outer Space Affairs and other appropriate UN entities.

Experts from 15 countries contributed to the final output of the Group: Brazil, Chile, China, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russian Federation, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, United Kingdom and United States. Mr. Victor Vasiliev of the Russian Federation served as its Chair. UNIDIR provided consultative support to the GGE.

The Role of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs supports the efforts by Member States to prevent an arms race in outer space. The Office served as the secretariat of the GGE on transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities and in this capacity provided administrative and substantive support to the Group.