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Op’ed: Dubai Declaration: A Long-Term Vision for Space

Presentation of the Dubai Declaration; Credits: UNOOSA
Presentation of the Dubai Declaration; Credits: UNOOSA

Dubai and Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre hosted the UN High Level Forum ‘Space as a Driver for Socio-Economic Sustainable Development’ last week. SpaceWatch Middle East asked Dr. Michael Simpson, Executive Director of Secure World Foundation, to gives his take on the UN’s long-term vision in space and the Dubai Declaration.

In June 2018, the United Nations will convoke a space policy conference of all its members for only the fourth time in its history.

Labelled UNISPACE+50, to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the UN’s first space conference, this edition, if it follows in the tradition set by its three predecessors, will set the multilateral agenda for space policy and space-assisted development for at least the following decade.

This fact was not lost on the 105 delegates from 21 countries, 6 intergovernmental entities, 23 non-governmental organisations, and 4 different United Nations offices and agencies who gathered for a UN High Level Forum (HLF) in Dubai from November 20 to 24. In addition to providing expert input into the preparation of UNISPACE+50, these men and women were charged to focus on elaborating ideas that could be incorporated into the long range vision expected to emerge from that conference: a vision already dubbed Space 2030.

unispace_plus50_transThis is not the first time that the United Nations has developed an agenda-setting vision from the work of its UNISPACE conferences.  All three held to date have been reflected in the work of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS). This has been especially true of UNISPACE III.

Held in 1999, that Conference adopted the Vienna Declaration that has shaped the UNCOPUOS agenda ever since. The UN focus on issues such as space debris and the long term sustainability of space activity emerged from the principles of the Vienna Declaration, as did the increasingly successful effort to coordinate the activities of the many UN activities using space-facilitated solutions to accomplish their missions. International cooperation in addressing challenges presented by near earth objects, difficulties in data sharing, and anxieties prompted by potential misuse or negligence in the application of space technology all have roots in this seminal document. The Space Generation Advisory Council and World Space Week were both conceived by it.

Fortunately, the Vienna Declaration also emphasised space cooperation itself. For five intense days in Dubai, cooperation was evident across a wide range of cultures, nationalities and disciplines.

Nowhere was that more in evidence than in the productive and enthusiastic engagement between representatives of commercial space activity and other participants. The recent agreement between the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and Sierra Nevada Corporation to use future flights of the Dream Chaser spacecraft to fly payloads for UN member states who might not have had access to launch opportunities was warmly applauded, as was a presentation by the Space Foundation on the beneficial social impact from companies whose achievements have been recognised in the Space Technology Hall of Fame.

Perhaps the greatest response, however, was for Digital Globe’s moving story about working with governments to deliver the space-sourced images that led to liberating as many as a thousand people from enslavement on illegal fishing vessels. What became obvious in this presentation in the context of so many others from governments, NGOs and multilateral institutions was that the distinction between public and private space activity is blurring.

logoWhether in Secure World Foundation’s presentations on defining benefit from space activity or perspectives on how to sustain it peacefully or in the many interventions ranging from medical spin offs to wildlife conservation to establishing a “Moon Village” community; the need for a dynamic mix of public, private, and hybrid activity necessary to move from concept to execution was evident.

In the Dubai Declaration that participants adopted on the last day of the Forum, two paragraphs particularly highlighted an emerging openness to communication and engagement with private space initiatives.  The first recognised the importance of countries developing a policy and regulatory environment that provides for certainty on which commercial entities can depend while the second called on UNOOSA to strengthen its cooperation with industry and the private sector.

There were, of course, many other insights to be gleaned and issues discussed in five days of meetings, but a few deserve special mention.

Sustainable economic development will be a major driver of the UN space agenda for the next decade. It is no accident that both the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the emerging UN space agenda all focus on 2030. Inside the UN system, the value of space activity will be judged against its capacity to move the development agenda forward.  This could present opportunities for space businesses that can communicate the development impact of their enterprises.

This will even touch exploration, where an initiative to create a UNCOPUOS Working Group on Exploration will come to fruition next February with Terms of Reference that seem likely to include encouragement and documentation of space exploration missions whose results favorably impact people on Earth.

Another takeaway from the Forum is that the UAE Government and its space agency have claimed a position of leadership and respect in the space community.  Their interventions, presentations, and diplomacy were all evident. They demonstrated that they had created real value and delivered real benefit.  None of the participants in the Forum having seen the Dubai or Abu Dhabi skylines could have doubted that the UAE had the financial capital to jump start a credible program of space activity. Most came away with ample evidence that it had the necessary intellectual and human capital as well.

The Forum also highlighted that demonstrating broad and tangible benefit from space activity is an objective shared by both observers and actors. Not only did the concept of benefit occur regularly in the HLF presentations, it did so in a context that demonstrated that breadth of benefit could offer a pathway to achieving substantial support for developing commercial opportunities in space.

Closely tied to benefit was the emphasis on access: access to data, information, space, and know how. Several speakers included this latter point noting that merely buying space hardware was incomplete access. Learning to build it and participating in innovation were also required.

If there was an unexpected result from the Forum, it was the desire to see it repeated annually even after UNISPACE+50 as a network of interaction in which the many different communities within the space sector could exchange ideas, perspectives and opportunities for collaboration without the formality or received structure of other forums.

Dr. Michael K. Simpson; Credits: Secure World Foundation

This was also an opportunity to see many young people not only attending, but actively presenting. Clear headed arguments that space warfare was not inevitable, an insightful presentation on the idea of a “Moon Village,” or a solid case for dynamic capacity building gave participants new ideas and new approaches from a new generation of colleagues.  In fact, after many speakers had evoked the need to involve a larger, more diverse audience in the discussion of space activity, it was one of those colleagues who held the Forum spellbound with a realtime analysis of the outreach a handful of people using social media during the Forum had been able to accomplish.

For now, the Dubai Declaration is being formatted and will shortly be available at Next stop will be UNCOPUOS’s Scientific and Technical Subcommittee in February. After compiling the questions and comments of member states, UNOOSA will develop a new agenda for the next HLF, which will likely take place again in the UAE next Fall.

Dr. Michael K. Simpson is Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation and former President of the International Space University. He is a member of both the International Academy of Astronautics and the International Institute of Space Law and a Senior Fellow of the International Institute of Space Commerce.

SpaceWatch Middle East thanks Dr. Simpson for sharing his views.

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Dubai Declaration is published at:

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