Outer Space

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.

Prevention of an arms race in outer space

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, inter alia, preventing the placement of weapons in outer space and prohibiting the use of anti-satellite weapons.

In 2008, the Governments of China and the Russian Federation introduced the draft text of such a treaty to the CD.They presented a revised draft treaty in 2014.

The General Assembly has also been engaged in the matter of ensuring peace and security in outer space. In 2017, by resolution A/RES/72/250, the General Assembly decided to establish a Group of Governmental Experts to consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, including, inter alia, on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space.While the Group held some of the most in-depth discussions on the matter in more than a decade, it was ultimately unable to reach consensus on a substantive report. The procedural report of the Group, which includes a report by the Chair of the Group on the work of its first session, can be found in document A/74/77. Information on the work of the Group can be found here.

Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures

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

In 1990, the General Assembly 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).

In 2005, beginning with resolution A/RES/60/66, the General Assembly began a new process for exploring and subsequently development transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) in outer space activities. At the recommendation of the First Committee in 2010, the General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/65/68, which established a group of governmental experts (GGE) to conduct a study on outer space.The GGE convened three sessions in 2012 and 2013 and submitted its consensus report (A/68/189*) to the General Assembly at its 68th session.
The GGE agreed to a set of TCBMs in outer space activities for implementation by States and international organizations on a voluntary basis. Those measures included: information exchange on space policies; information exchange and notifications related to outer space activities; risk reduction notifications; contact and visits to space launch sites and facilities; international cooperation; consultative mechanisms; outreach; and coordination. The GGE also endorsed efforts to pursue political commitments, for example, in the form of unilateral declarations, bilateral commitments or a multilateral code of conduct, to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, outer space.

The General Assembly has taken a number of steps to advance the implementation of outer space TCBMs. In resolution A/RES/68/50 and subsequent resolutions, the Assembly encouraged Member States to review and implement, to the greatest extent practicable, the proposed TCBMs, through relevant national mechanisms, on a voluntary basis and in a manner consistent with the national interests of Member States. Pursuant to the recommendation of the GGE, in 2015, the First and Fourth Committees of the General Assembly held their first joint ad hoc meeting, which addressed possible challenges to space security and sustainability. In 2017, the two Committees held a second joint meeting under this topic.

In resolution A/RES/69/38 and subsequent resolutions, the General Assembly encouraged the relevant entities and organizations of the United Nations system to coordinate, as appropriate, on matters related to the recommendations contained in the GGE report. In 2015, the Inter-Agency Meeting on Outer Space Activities (UN-Space), coordinated by the Office for Outer Space Affairs, issued a special report on the role of United Nations entities in supporting implementation of the GGE report (A/AC.105/1116).

Report by the Secretary-General to the 72nd session of the General Assembly
By resolution A/RES/70/53, the General Assembly requested the Secretary-General to submit to the Assembly at its seventy-second session a report on the coordination of transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities in the United Nations system, with an annex containing submissions from Member States giving their views on transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities. The report reproduces the substantive text of the special report by UN-Space and incorporates updates received from the contributing entities.

The replies received from Governments, including the versions of those received in extenso in the original languages received, can be found here.

United Nations Disarmament Commission

In 2018, the United Nations Disarmament Commission adopted the following item for consideration during its 2018-2020 cycle: In accordance with the recommendations contained in the report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-building Measures in Outer Space Activities (A/68/189), preparation of recommendations to promote the practical implementation of transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities with the goal of preventing an arms race in outer space. Information on the 2018 session of the Disarmament Commission can be found here.

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.