Insight - United Nations Community Gathers for Global Discussion of Space Policy at UNISPACE+50

Monday, July 16, 2018

By Michael Simpson, Executive Director

In June, the United Nations community gathered for a global discussion of space policy for only the fourth time in its history.  Almost fifty years after the first UNISPACE Conference was convened in August 1968, 92 UN member states assembled in Vienna under the banner of UNISPACE+50.

The event was a dynamic combination of celebration, stock-taking, and future-focusing that combined a two-day symposium including keynote addresses, panel presentations and side events with two days of debate and discussion involving interventions from governments and permanent observers of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

This combination was visible from the opening panel on the “Past, Present and Future of Outer Space Activities.” This panel seemed particularly affirming for Secure World Foundation’s work as it placed particular emphasis on areas where SWF has been very active in recent years:  international cooperation, space sustainability, the growing involvement of the private sector, and the need to facilitate access to and use of outer space by new actors.

Over these two days, the Foundation contributed members to two panels and one side event.  SWF Founder and President Cynda Collins Arsenault participated in the “Space for Women” panel and made a strong case for balance and empowerment in strengthening the role of women in the space sector and cited tangible examples of how this would make the sector stronger and more effective.  Executive Director Michael Simpson made his contribution to the “Space and Civil Society” panel using the experience of SWF to show the many pathways by which non-governmental organizations could support the process of policy development nationally and internationally.

Dr. Simpson also participated in the side event organized by the Moon Village Association contributing a talk on the challenges to be overcome in creating local governance structures for eventual human communities on the Moon. He reminded the audience that given the lack of territorial sovereignty in outer space imposed by the Outer Space Treaty, that some of these challenges have not been faced broadly by human society in recorded history.

While many of the interventions at the opening UNISPACE+50 Symposium were provided by non-governmental representatives, the second two-day segment was largely focused on statements from member states. Over the two days, 66 countries came to the podium to reflect on their current use of space and their hopes for the future.  Themes of cooperation, capacity building success, scientific progress, climate change, disaster mitigation, and favorable impact of space applications were frequently developed. Thinking about the latter point, surviving participants of UNISPACE I should have felt particular satisfaction. That conference had singled out the need to make space applications useful and accessible to the broadest possible range of countries and peoples.

Yet, even beyond this theme and the others just mentioned, speakers raised the need for space activity and technology to make a tangible contribution to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Repeated more than any other, the idea that space technology would play an important and even critical role in achieving the SDGs was central to the thinking not only of most developing countries but to that of most developed ones as well.  From Office for Outer Space Affairs Director, Simonetta DiPippo’s keynote remarks reporting that nearly half of the indicators that have to be advanced to meet the SDG goals depend heavily on space technology to the remarks of SWF’s founder and President, Cynda Collins Arsenault, that the original vision of the Foundation was for “a world where what we now know as the Sustainable Development Goals could be met,” the theme was evoked in one way or another by nearly all of the 78 speakers who came to the podium.

Looking forward, this theme will play a central role as COPUOS works to develop a Space2030 agenda destined to be a ten-year plan driving UN priorities in developing multilateral space policy. Mandated by the High Level Segment of UNISPACE+50 to have a draft of that agenda ready for consideration by the General Assembly during its session in Fall of 2020, COPUOS does not have a lot of time to get this job done. As a permanent observer at that committee, SWF will be deeply engaged in the effort to complete the task.

We will also be engaged in the continuing process of bringing input, ideas, research, and insight through the UN High Level Forums that now shift from preparing UNISPACE+50 to meeting its mandate to create the Space2030 Agenda. Fortunately, participation in this process does not require being vetted as a Permanent Observer to COPUOS. Only an application is required. Details are available on the website of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs here and applications to participate are available online here.

The Space2030 Agenda and the strong desire for it to resonate with the Sustainable Development Goals are likely to have profound impact on the international policy environment faced by the space sector between now and the end of the next decade. SWF will be an active participant in the discussions that will shape that environment. We hope that we will have lots of company.

Last updated on July 16, 2018