Capacity Building and the U.N.

Ray A. Williamson, PhD, is editor of Imaging Notes and Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation, an organization devoted to the promotion of cooperative approaches to space security (


This June, I spent nearly two weeks at the meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which meets in Vienna, Austria annually. In that meeting and the associated Scientific and Technical (S&T) Subcommittee and Legal Subcommittee meetings held earlier in February and March, respectively, delegates from 69 States met to share information, work out cooperative programs, and study legal problems that arise in the exploration and use of outer space.

In 1967, COPUOS, which was set up by the U.N. General Assembly 50 years ago, worked out the international treaty that provides the legal underpinnings of all space activity, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, otherwise known as the Outer Space Treaty (OST). This is the treaty that makes remote sensing of Earth’s environment and human activity on the planet truly useful.

The first two articles of the treaty contain the following key statements:

  • Article I: Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.
  • Article II: Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

Although States still cannot agree on precisely where air space ends and outer space begins, all are nevertheless bound by the treaty, which entered into force at the time of its inception in 1967, and no State can successfully claim jurisdiction over parts of orbits that pass over its territory. This provision helped keep the peace during the depths of the Cold War by allowing U.S. and Soviet satellites to pass unhindered over each other’s territories, providing verification of the number and placement of ballistic missiles in each country. This same provision, of course, makes possible the operation of the many different types of Earth observing satellites that countries and private companies operate today.

Figure 1U.N. building in Vienna, Austria. Photo credit: Agnieszka Lukaszczyk.

This year, during both the S&T Subcommittee meeting in February and the plenary meeting in June, I was struck especially by the frequent mention of Earth observations and the benefits they provide. According to statements offered at these meetings, many member States make enormous use of Earth observations data to support different aspects of human and environmental security needs. Others, however, spend more time focused on the need to build capacity for employing the data effectively.

What might surprise many readers is the fact that the United Nations itself employs the data gathered by different countries to support public needs, from tracking the spread of vector-borne disease to responding to natural disasters. According to the United Nations, about 24 U.N. entities make routine use of space applications, mostly employing information derived from Earth observations data. Investigating these uses in detail takes one into a dizzying array of acronyms, all beginning with the letters U.N.

U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)

The United Nations’ broad use of Earth observations follows from the broad scope of the United Nations’ mandate, which covers most human and environmental needs, with a special emphasis on the needs of citizens within developing States. For example, this year the offices of the UNHCR began a pilot project on the use of aerial and satellite imagery for studying human migration, which is most often seen in internal displacements such as has taken place recently in Pakistan as serious fighting began between the Pakistan Army and the Taliban insurgents in the Swat Valley of Pakistan.

The UNHCR study will compare current and past satellite images, mapping changes in land use and determining patterns of natural resource extraction. The organization will also map refugee camps in order to facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid to the inhabitants. Mass population dislocations can exact a considerable toll on the environment. Such studies can be enormously useful in helping UNHCR to develop appropriate methodologies for finding appropriate sites for refugee camps, in addition to aiding the delivery of food, water, and services to refugees.

Refugees in urban settings pose a particular challenge to aid agencies because of the density of habitation. UNHCR has used satellite imagery to help map refugee populations in the sprawling cities of Cairo, Damascus and Nairobi.

U.N. Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT)

Another element of the United Nations is the U.N. Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT). Since its inception, UNOSAT has developed more than 900 operational maps and associated analyses to assist human security and humanitarian assistance. UNITAR provides applications training related to peacekeeping and preventive diplomacy and also supports training for local authorities in disaster prevention and vulnerability reduction.

U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

In addition to these efforts, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) makes extensive use of NOAA’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (NPOES) imagery to warn farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa of impending drought or rainy seasons.

Major Need of Capacity Building

In making effective use of Earth observations data, developing countries face the severe difficulties of a lack of training in the effective use of satellite data and of appropriate computer hardware to operate the necessary analytical software—in other words, they need training in capacity building. Hence, in the past two decades, the United Nations has created or assisted in the development of a number of U.N.-affiliated organizations to provide training. For example, the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which also serves as the secretariat for COPUOS, holds a series of training seminars and conferences each year in developing countries.

Figure 1 A COPUOS session meeting at the U.N. being led by current Chairman of the Committee, Ambassador Ciro Arévalo of Colombia. Photo credit: Ray Williamson.

Finally, the United Nations was instrumental in setting up training centers for space science and applications in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These affiliated training centers offer a variety of courses in order to strengthen the space capabilities of their regions. Africa hosts two regional education centers, the African Regional Center for Space Science and Technology Education, one in French in Rabat, Morocco, and one in English in Lagos, Nigeria. Between them, these two centers serve respectively the Francophone north and the largely English-speaking south of Africa.

The single Asian Center for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific is located in the campus of the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun. In Latin America, the Regional Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Latin America and the Caribbean boasts two locations: one in Puebla, Mexico, on the campus of the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics, and another in Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, in the facilities of the National Institute for Space Research. All of these centers provide, among other courses, significant training opportunities in the processing and interpretation of Earth observations data, centered on the regions they serve.

The organizations that I have highlighted provide only a partial view of the extensive use of satellite Earth observations data and information that the United Nations as a whole applies to its work on behalf of the developing world. Nevertheless, this list illustrates just how embedded these capabilities are in the U.N. system. It also illustrates just how far we have come since NASA launched its first electro-optical satellite, Landsat-1 (originally called Earth Resources Technology Satellite, or ERTS) in 1972. Although at the time some U.N. officials could see the promise of the technology for development and for managing Earth’s resources, I suspect that few imagined that Earth observations technologies would evolve into these U.N. workhorses. Nevertheless, there is still a deep need to build the capacity for making effective use of the data, and the United Nations has taken that need to heart.

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