New “Lexicon for Outer Space Security” Ready for Final OEWG Session

New “Lexicon for Outer Space Security” Ready for Final OEWG Session

The fourth and final session of the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats will take place at the end of this month. Previous discussions at OEWG and elsewhere highlighted the challenges of talking about a topic where terminology varies considerably within and among nations and other stakeholders. Now there is at least a starting point with the new “Lexicon for Outer Space Security” released by the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research and the Secure World Foundation.

UNIDIR and SWF emphasize the report is a first edition that will be updated over time as new terminology emerges and the definitions themselves evolve.

Available for free from UNIDIR.

Victoria Samson, Director of SWF’s Washington Office and co-editor of the report, tells that the lexicon “does not reflect 100% consensus” among the multinational group of advisors on the project “and that was never intended to be the case.” Instead the goal was to identify both terms with generally accepted meanings and those with different interpretations. “For example, while in English, ‘space security’ is different from ‘space safety,’ other languages don’t distinguish between safety and security.”

The working language for developing and writing the report was English, but “we worked on identifying space and disarmament experts who were geographically representative and linguistically diverse: we had native speakers of all six official UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) participate.”

The Republic of Korea funded the project.

Versions will be produced in all six official U.N. languages, but the report stresses those “will not be exact translations of the present English version, as they will highlight important linguistic differences relevant to each individual language.”

The report took about a year-and-a-half to produce with the goal of finishing in time to support the final OEWG session that will take place from August 28-September 1 in Geneva.

Chile’s Hellmut Lagos, who chairs the OEWG, writes in a Foreword that the lack of a common understanding of terms complicates the discussions.

“Without any doubt, we are witnessing a growing awareness of the importance of addressing threats and risks that may affect activities in space that are vital for the development of States and the wellbeing of their citizens, regardless of the level of the specific space programmes and national capabilities.

“In the last couple of years, this concern has gradually mobilized government, academia, industry representatives and scientists and helped to ignite a number of discussions and diplomatic processes on space safety, security and sustainability. In these debates, and in particular in the sessions of the Open- Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviours (OEWG), it became evident that several of the specific terms used in the multilateral field are understood in different ways, and that in some cases, different terms are used to describe the same concept.

“This dissimilarity does not only stem from the diverse disciplines that are involved in the discussions, but also from linguistical distinctions and different legal traditions, which have been acknowledged by several delegations during the discussions of the OEWG. It is no exaggeration to say that this absence of a common understanding around frequently used terminology constitutes an additional challenge to the difficult goal of making concrete progress in the debates on space security.”

He’s convinced the Lexicon “can significantly contribute to the establishment of that missing common understanding.”

Although it is entitled an “open-ended” working group, the OEWG is coming to the end of its term. The session this month is the last.

Samson said the hope is that the OEWG will be able to reach consensus on a series of recommendations, but even if not, the discussions have been valuable.

“I think that even if there isn’t consensus on a final product, the discussions themselves have been incredibly helpful in identifying norms and priorities for the international community and socializing ideas brought up elsewhere.” That includes discussions about the U.S.-led commitment not to conduct direct-ascent antisatellite tests that create orbital debris.  Samson added that 34 countries now have joined the United States in making that commitment.

Jessica West of Canada’s Project Ploughshares published a summary of recommendations stemming from the third OEWG session that took place January 30-February 3, 2023 and live-tweeted the previous sessions (@JessicaWestPhD). Hopefully she will again.

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