From Safety to Security: Global Workshop Series Report

Jessica West Featured, Reports, Space Security

From Safety to Security: Extending Norms in Outer Space Global Workshop Series Report


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In November 2020, global space experts were invited to participate in a series of regional online workshops to identify priorities and possible next steps in the development of norms related to space-based military capabilities and activities. These workshops were part of a wider research project to map the normative landscape in outer space that is being undertaken by Dr. Jessica West, a Senior Researcher at Project Ploughshares, and Mr. Gilles Doucet, President of Spectrum Space Security, Inc.


Safety and sustainability as security issues: Our project is based on the premise that security-related norms of behaviour in outer space are directly linked to—and can build upon—established and emerging safety and sustainability practices. Although some participants disagreed with this approach, the discussions identified close linkages, including many shared practices that can help to reduce misperceptions and conflict escalation. Moreover, safety and sustainability are linked to existing shared values and perceived benefits and rooted in more inclusive language.

The workshop discussions reinforced our appreciation of norms as social and value-laden, served to distinguish norms from other types of rules, and emphasized the importance of moral obligation in motivating behaviour. These factors have implications for advancing a normative approach to enhanced security in outer space.

Shared values: A key takeaway from the workshops is that shared values and benefits are essential to effective norms of behaviour. Any efforts to develop new norms of behaviour in space must first reflect a shared understanding of collective values and purpose. Our research has identified numerous core principles that inform space governance, detailed in the report below.

Inclusivity and fairness: Identifying and building on shared values create a foundation for promoting norms that are both inclusive and fair, but these values must be incorporated into the entire norm process, including the goals and benefits of normative development.

The desire to advance normative approaches to security in space is not new, but has not met with much recent success. The intent of the workshops was to identify viable paths to advance this agenda. In addition to considering process, participants prioritized potential threats as well as opportunities for mitigating security risks in space.

Threatening activities: Anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) and testing, and concerns linked to the weaponization of outer space and the conduct of non-cooperative rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) and other close-proximity operations (CPO), were consistently flagged as priorities, in tandem with the production of space debris.

A threatening operating environment: The operating environment itself—with its prevalence of secrecy and overall lack of transparency, trust, and dialogue—was seen to be a key contributor to the potential for conflict and conflict escalation.

Opportunities for good practice: Participants emphasized transparency and communication practices as both necessary and feasible going forward. Core practices included:

  • Notifications
  • Registration and disclosure
  • Data sharing
  • Consultations and maintaining direct lines of communication.

Missing mechanisms: Our workshops revealed that many of the mechanisms—core tools and processes—to propagate, practise, and promote norms of behaviour are missing. There is little or no engaging with others; no dialogue, information exchange, consultation, or communication. The absence of such mechanisms creates challenges at both the diplomatic and operational levels.

Leadership is important: Strong norms need effective leaders who can explain how certain necessary actions are clearly linked to accepted values and standards. Additionally, leadership must include consistent practice of the norms that are being espoused.

Key findings

  • Practical priorities identified by workshop participants include:
  • Debris prevention and mitigation, which were generally accepted as being of interest to all and urgently required.
  • Developing the technical means to better enable good practice in outer space, notably modes of communication and data sharing at an operational level.
  • Building likemindedness through a focus on inclusive security goals that are rooted in shared values and benefits. Building on safety and sustainability values is one way to do this. Developing a shared conceptual approach and definitions is another.
  • Identifying and developing incentives for good practice that include all participants.
  • Demonstrating leadership by engaging in and communicating practices that enhance the safety of other operators, mitigate potential misperceptions, and contribute to long-term sustainability of the operating environment.

Read full report here.

Photo: View of Earth from the International Space Station. 

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