Insight - The UN/UAE High Level Forum on Space for Socio-Economic Sustainable Development

Thursday, December 15, 2016

By Christopher D. Johnson, Space Law Advisor

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently organized in Dubai the 2016 High Level Forum - Space as a Driver for Socio-economic Sustainable Development. This five day event is part of a larger process of revisiting and strengthening cooperation and coordination of global space activities, culminating in the UNISPACE+50 Conference in the summer of 2018. The forum included over 100 participants from almost 30 countries, representing a diverse range of governments, private industry, international intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and academia. The Secure World Foundation was a partner and co-sponsor of the High Level Forum, the purpose of which was to first consider the wide range of global space activities and their effects on global sustainable development, and then to reflect and agree on methods to strengthen and advance these linkages. 

The major outcome of this High Level Forum is the Dubai Declaration. The Dubai Declaration will be used to guide the ongoing work of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), especially its lead-up to the planned UNISPACE+50 activities in 2018. The Declaration was also developed in the context of the UN-wide Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These seventeen SDGs are ambitious in scope but critical to continuing progress towards global health, safety, security, and prosperity. The entire UN system, as well as the international development sector and and many other industries, are focused on achieving them. What is perhaps overlooked is that space activities and capabilities contribute to achieving the SDGs in both direct and indirect ways.

The High Level Forum split the discussions along four tracks: space accessibility, space society, space economy, and space diplomacy. SWF’s Executive Director Michael Simpson, and Space Law Advisor Chris Johnson made statements under each of the four tracks.

On the issue of space accessibility, SWF focused on the increasing use of small satellites as the first project for developing domestic space capacity. In the context of the SDGs, small satellites offer the possibility of cheaper satellite services, such as remote sensing and Earth observation for the better stewardship of natural resources and other development goals. As such, small satellites are an attractive opportunity for those wishing to make the world a better place. However, increased numbers of small satellites create potential challenges with administrative oversight and capacity, physical and electromagnetic congestion, and the risk of collisions that could create long-lived space debris. States and satellite operators will need to work together to find ways to mitigate these challenges, while still encouraging innovation. 

Under space economy, discussion recognized the positive global impact space applications and services have while acknowledging the need to continue to encourage sharing of benefits arising from space activities in response to requirements in space law that space activities must be done in the interest of all countries. As government and private sector programs alike advance new areas of space activity, complex tradeoffs and nuanced approaches to describing benefits will be required. Benefit cannot – and should not – be ascribed in solely financial term as advanced space technological capabilities do indeed benefit our global society in real, yet sometimes intangible ways 

The discussion on space society focused directly on using space for attaining the SDGs, and many speakers highlighted what existing space activities can assist in their achievement. However, more consideration of the links between space and the SDGs must be consciously and consistently pursued. Earth observation satellites provide a unique source of information for anyone planning, carrying out, or evaluating sustainable development projects. High resolution images can be used for investigating highly targeted phenomena with a narrow field of vision during a specific timeframe. Low resolution imagery is better at depicting regional phenomena that may require more systematic and repetitive collection. This diversity of utility highlights an important point—that space assets can be used to support all of the SDGs, not just those where their employment is already common and it’s important that all relevant actors are part of the discussion of how to increase the use of space technology for sustainable development.

Lastly, diplomacy and international governance affect all of the topics discussed in Dubai. The global community can either allow space activities to peacefully flourish and develop, or allow larger geopolitical concerns to overwhelm and overrule our ambitions in space, chilling technological advancement and stifling the use of space for human and environmental security. Upon reflecting on the myriad and stimulating ways that space can foster scientific discovery, technological advancement, economic opportunity, sustainable development and the responsible stewardship of the environment, it is clear that our global and collective long-term interest is to allow space activities to continue to progress in a peaceful and sustainable fashion.

A promising future involves more numerous actors from a wider range of backgrounds doing more advanced and novel activities, and it depends on space being a domain where conflict is avoided. Indeed, the future we, the international community, want hinges upon refuting the assertion that conflict in outer space is inevitable and fostering the peaceful and sustainable coexistence between all actors and stakeholders. The means of attaining this promising future flow through discussions such as the UN/UAE High Level Forum, exist in the spirit of the Dubai Declaration, continue on with a planned High Level Forum in 2017, and in UNISPACE+50 in 2018. UNISPACE+50 will culminate in a proposed agenda for the work of UNCOPUOS for many years to come.

As a partner and co-sponsor to the UNOOSA-led High Level Forum program, the Secure World Foundation intends to continue its participation in 2017 and beyond. Everyone who attended the High Level Forum in Dubai was already aware of the importance and potential for lasting impact of this event, and those not present are strongly encouraged to get involved, have their voices heard, and see their interests considered.

Last updated on January 12, 2017