May 20, 2013
The Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities is an important United Nations (UN) platform for space security. The UN had established the present GGE in 2011 and during July 2013 this group is expected to furnish their final findings.1 Till date two meetings of the GGE have been held.
The last two decades have witnessed rapid developments in the field of space. And in the last few years, states like Iran, North Korea and South Korea have all joined the coveted club of space-faring nations. On 29 April 2013, a suborbital air-launched space plane (Space Ship Two), being designed and developed for space tourism by a private company, successfully performed its first test flight. While on 7 May 2013 with a launch of the satellite ESTCube-1, Estonia became the 41st nation in the world to own a man-made object orbiting in space. On the other hand, there are concerns over issues associated with the possibility of weaponsation of space. All this clearly imply that there is an urgent need to develop a mechanism to oversee responsible behaviour in space.
Over the years various efforts have been made to device a mutually agreeable space regime without much success. There has been a deadlock in the CD (Conference on Disarmament) for more than 15 years on space related matters. Also, the UN efforts like the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS) and the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) have remained non-starters. Presently, two complimentary efforts are underway to develop a space mechanism: one, the International Space Code of Conduct which continuous to remain under deliberations and two, the GGE.
The present GGE constitutes a group of members nominated by 15 states. The permanent five (P-5) of the UN Security Council and Brazil, Chile, Italy, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine are the other members of GGE. Apart from P-5 states, which indecently are also space-faring states, only two other members from this grouping have only recently become space-faring states, namely Ukraine and South Korea. In fact, South Korea became a space-faring state just three months back, after the GGE was constituted. In order to have a fair geographic representation, the UN appears to have compromised inducting the actual stakeholders.
Absence of a consensus has resulted in failure to establish any form of space regime. Urgency has arisen to start an initiative, fundamental in nature, with broad-based consensus. In the light of this, a great deal of thinking has gone into developing the TCBMs, which are voluntary in nature. The critical question, however, is whether it is ‘worth to accept the lowest common dominator just because no consensuses are likely to emerge?’ The purpose is not to argue either in favour of or against the concept of voluntary declarations but to check the efficacy of developing a long-term and sustainable mechanism factoring in the geopolitical variables.
The purpose should be to develop a structure that is transparent and accountable as well as to strike a right balance between the legitimate concerns of the states vis-à-vis transparency-related goals. It is important that such instruments should not be formulated just to accommodate the interests of the big players. In the past various UN regimes, particularly related to weapons, have been manipulated by the major powers, for example nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and also missiles. However, ‘weapon’ is only a minuscule aspect for any space regime. Broadly, the mechanism for space needs to be developed for the purposes of space sustainability.