Interview with Simonetta Di Pippo
Director, United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs
2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first UNISPACE conference where 78 Member States met to discuss the vast potential of space science and technology, and its applications. Simonetta Di Pippo is Director of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the body responsible for promoting international co-operation in the peaceful uses of outer space.
Journal of International Affairs: It may come as a surprise to many that outer space has been on the international agenda for decades. How has space changed since the UNISPACE I Conference in 1968?
Simonetta Di Pippo: Since the first UNISPACE Conference, the world has experienced a dramatic and fascinating growth of activities in outer space. On one side, we are witnessing a persistently increasing plurality in the number of actors in space, and on the other, we see space science, technology and its associated applications continuing to embed themselves into the foundations of modern society.
For example, recent research conducted by UNOOSA and the European Global Navigation Satellite System Agency shows that close to 40 percent of the targets underpinning the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) rely on the use of space science and technology. This is just one example of the broad application of space to policy making in the 21st century. It is crucial that the role of space as a driver for global sustainable development is highlighted—and ensured—across the development agenda which, besides the SDGs, includes two other landmark global agreements: the Paris Climate Accords and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 – 2030.
JIA: As the international community looks to the next 50 years of the space age what, in your opinion, are the key challenges to ensuring that humanity’s most expansive global commons is safe, secure and sustainable?
SDP: Since its establishment in 1959, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has been the platform that Member States have used to develop and maintain the normative framework that governs outer space activities.
One of the challenges facing the international community for the next 50 years will be ensuring that this normative framework remains fit for purpose in the face of such a rapid diversification of the space sector. How the existing framework responds to emerging issues such as space debris mitigation, space traffic management, and space resource mining will be matters that Member States will address through the institutional structure of the UN. Clearly, safety, security and sustainability of outer space activities is of the utmost importance.
One thing is certain: we need to ensure that we continue to preserve outer space as a global commons. When we talk about activities in outer space governed by space law, it is crucial that we address space law on a global level within the international community. Co-operation is key; despite political differences, the global community has proved repeatedly throughout the space age that we can come together through science, and work for the benefit of humanity.
JIA: What role does UNOOSA play in addressing these challenges?
SDP: UNOOSA is the only UN office responsible exclusively for space- related matters. We provide expertise related to the peaceful uses of outer space; assist the UN Secretary-General with his obligations under international space law; and continue to support COPUOS and its growing membership. As of today, COPUOS has 87 Member States and over 30 Permanent Observers. At the same time, we are also scaling up our engagement with the private sector and industry. Overall, this step change in both awareness and participation from the international community in our work is a welcome development, but it still presents a key challenge in how to generate new multilateral policy with this increasingly diverse stakeholder landscape. To frame the discussion around how we will meet the challenges of the future, at UNOOSA we often talk about the four pillars of space: space economy, space society, space accessibility, and space diplomacy.
Space economy looks at activities that create and provide economic value and benefits through exploring, understanding and utilizing space. Building Member State capacity and raising awareness of space activities are important to realize the full potential of sustainable economic growth associated with space science and technology. Space society refers to the social benefits of space science, technology and services, particularly how such benefits can be better applied around the world to improve quality of life at all levels of society, from the individual up. Space accessibility addresses ways to facilitate global access to space data, technologies, and applications. The international community must ensure that people around the globe have access to such benefits and that space does not constitute yet another area of social inequality.
Finally, space diplomacy captures the need for fit-for-purpose international mechanisms to facilitate efforts to develop, deliberate and decide how outer space should be governed sustainably. For example, in 2010, COPUOS established a Working Group to identify areas of concern for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities, and propose measures that could enhance the safe and sustainable use of outer space for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all countries.
JIA: Do you think the current global space governance architecture is well suited to dealing with the complexity and plurality of outer space activities, today and in the future?
SDP: The concept of global governance of outer space encompasses a wide range of instruments, institutions and mechanisms. These range from international and regional treaties, agreements, model national laws and regulations, to a number of international co-operative mechanisms, guidelines, and transparency and confidence-building measures. All of these initiatives are aimed at ensuring a certain level of predictability and orderly conduct of space activities. It is important to note that while national legislation needs to be in accordance with international law, nation states are ultimately responsible for what actors are doing in outer space.
UNOOSA has always been committed to engaging states, international organizations and other stakeholders to increase their efforts to fortify co-operation. In this context, the UN has organized three unique global Conferences on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. UNISPACE+50 was an important opportunity for the international community, 50 years since the first UNISPACE conference, to gather and deliberate on questions such as the current status and future role of COPUOS and UNOOSA as important players in shaping the global governance of outer space. UNISPACE+50 has followed in the footsteps of previous UNISPACE conferences that succeeded in moving forward the political agenda and mandates of COPUOS and its Subcommittees to keep pace with global developments, including those in space activities.
Resources are, however, currently severely limited. UNOOSA, for example, has a total staff of around 30. With this small team, we still deliver on a huge mandate as the guardian of the five UN space treaties, maintaining the UN Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space, serving as the Secretariat to a growing COPUOS, delivering capacity-building to Member States, and convening the annual inter-agency meetings across all UN agencies using space science and technology to deliver their respective mandates.
JIA: The UN Secretary-General has called for greater collaboration across the pillars of peace, security, development and human rights. What does this look like in the context of outer space?
SDP: Space unites us because, at its most basic level, it provides the required magnitude of perspective to demonstrate to everyone, everywhere that we together share one planet. The idea that space is for everyone and should be used and explored peacefully is captured in the Outer Space Treaty, which came into force in 1967. This concept came at pivotal times in the 1960s when there were geopolitical tensions and conflict alongside calls for disarmament and peace. The Treaty was progressive because it helped maintain peaceful and orderly exploration and use of outer space, which continues to the present day.
Bringing the benefits of space to humankind as well as promoting international co-operation in the peaceful uses of outer space remains the priority of UNOOSA. We are also working hard to promote and facilitate the use of outer space to reach the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 goals. Effective use of space tools for Member States to implement the 2030 Agenda, its goals and targets will depend on building strong partnerships and co-operating with all relevant stakeholders. At UNOOSA, we are employing new, more holistic and tangible approaches to our traditional capacity-building role to help Member States, particularly developing countries, use space to address the targets enshrined in the 2030 Agenda.
The UN itself depends heavily on the use of space systems in its daily activities. Strengthened inter-agency and inter-disciplinary collaboration, and stronger promotion of space technology at all levels, both within the UN and more broadly, would be an essential step forward to gain the maximum out of the use of space-derived tools for peace, security, development, human rights, and more.
There is long-standing international co-operation in the peaceful uses of outer space. Decisions in COPUOS are reached by consensus. Nations that have political differences work together for scientific progress and to better understand the universe around us. While we may disagree on Earth, what we can achieve together in space is inspiring. Space unites us towards common goals.
Simonetta Di Pippo holds a Master’s Degree in Astrophysics and Space Physics from University “La Sapienza” in Rome, an Honoris Causa Degree in Environmental Studies from St. John University, and an Honoris Causa Degree in International Relations from John Cabot University. Ms. Di Pippo was knighted by the President of the Italian Republic in 2006. In 2008, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid 21887 “Dipippo” in honor of her contribution to space activities.