Monday, August 22, 2011

The Role of the United Nations in First Contact

The United Nations Charter states the purpose of the organization. That purpose includes maintaining international peace and security and achieving international cooperation in solving international problems. First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would create a unique set of challenges. The primary issues would be those of peace and security. The long-term challenge would be solving the problems created by First Contact and establishing the path to a new era of extraterrestrial diplomacy and relations. The UN clearly should have a leadership role in First Contact and a continuing leadership role in future extraterrestrial relations.

I believe that the importance of the UN in First Contact applies to every possible scenario, from scientists discovering a mysterious and cryptic engineered signal, to high information First Contact and even further to Direct First Contact. The one end of the spectrum, discovery of a signal, would allow more time for deliberation and consideration. Direct First Contact, an extraterrestrial representative visiting Earth, would require a rapid response and a solid framework of diplomacy.

The UN has six primary parts. They include the General Assembly, Security Council and Secretariat. The first group that would need to consider First Contact issues would be the Security Council. This body is charged with determining threats to international peace and maintaining international peace and security. No matter what the form of First Contact security is the primary issue at hand. How immediate the threat depends on the type of First Contact and that’s directly tied to proximity. Discovery of a signal is low on the threat level because the alien civilization is most likely many light years away. Direct First Contact has a high degree of threat. Calling the Security Council the first stop for First Contact issues may seem paranoid or unfriendly. However, it’s really a completely logical decision. We would have no information to guide us in First Contact and no experience to help us decide what kind of a threat an extraterrestrial civilization might represent. The threat may not even come from the extraterrestrials themselves, but rather in our reaction. It’s necessary to take any possible threats quite seriously and respond appropriately. The Security Council would need to determine the possible threats, bring together nations as part of a coordinated response and set forth conditions of security that visiting extraterrestrial representatives would be asked to follow. A knee-jerk military response could be disastrous. Having an organized international response would help keep individual nations from acting on their own.

One could argue that setting guidelines for alien visitors would be a bit ridiculous, given that their level of technology would likely be much greater than ours. Still, nuclear weapons do provide some muscle and asking extraterrestrial visitors to follow conservative guidelines for contact does not seem like an unreasonable request. What should we say? Here are some ideas:

-No craft should visit Earth without the approval of the United Nations.

-No use of stealth or cloaking technology for any space or aircraft in Earth atmosphere or our solar system.

-No corruption or manipulation of our secure systems of communication, information and technology.

-No contact with other humans without approval of the United Nations or assigned governing body.

-A promise of non-interference in Earth governments and other social systems.

-Complete transparency in actions and motives.

These requests are reiterated in this Declaration of Human Rights

1. Humans have the right to self-determination.

2. Humans have a right to not be manipulated by other civilizations.

3. Humans have a right to keep the pillars of human society free of manipulation by other civilizations. Those pillars include government, economy, technology, and civic arrangements.

4. The planet Earth is the sacred home of human beings.

5. Life on Earth should not be interfered with or manipulated by outside beings.

6. Humans have a right to determine how First Contact proceeds.

7. Humans should determine what type of information they want to receive about the outside universe and the method of dissemination.

8. The resources of the planet Earth are the property of citizens of Earth.

9. The solar system of Earth is the property and home of citizens of Earth.

10. Humans can decide which beings can enter their solar system and under what conditions.

11. Humans can decide which beings can enter Earth atmosphere and under what conditions.

12. Humans will enter into the larger known universe as productive and responsible citizens.

13. Humans will decide exactly how that entry into the larger known universe proceeds.

14. Humans will expect honesty from all parties interacting with the citizens of planet Earth.

15. Humans will demand honesty and forthright disclosure of any past interactions between alien civilizations and people of the planet Earth.

The Security Council would also need to be responsible for taking the initial steps in coordinating the official welcome. This would ultimately fall to the Secretariat in planning and organization. The Secretariat carries out the day-to-day functions and actions of the United Nations. The welcome itself would reasonably be expected to be given to the General Assembly, the body that provides representation for nations on Earth. A welcome from an extraterrestrial contingent should be made to all nations and the General Assembly would provide the means to do so.

There are two sub-sets of the United Nations that should be involved in the initial diplomatic needs of First Contact. The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is the only body charged with consideration of space related matters. While the focus has been on controlling armament issues in Earth orbit and outer space, the group also has a role in determining possible threats from Near Earth Objects. They are the only committee that has a role in extraterrestrial issues.

The specific group working under the COPUOS umbrella is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). The office was initially created to provide expertise on space related matters. They are now charged with implementing the decisions of COPUOS and the General Assembly. First Contact response by the international community would be an incredibly complicated effort, involving many groups and spanning a broad swath of human society. However, it has to start somewhere and the only group set up to consider such issues is UNOOSA. The current director, Malaysian Astrophysicist Mazlan Othman, has considered First Contact issues and seems to understand the need for United Nations involvement.

There are those who would dispute the notion that the United Nations is the appropriate body to lead efforts in response to First Contact. This seems an arguable point now in pure speculation and yet when faced with the actual prospect I can’t imagine the argument would continue to hold weight. First Contact has inherent threat, both from the motives of the extraterrestrials and in the reactions here on Earth. To respond as a bunch of independent nations, each with a different voice and a different message seems foolish and dangerous. The United Nations is the only body that currently exists that can carry out the necessary coordinated response. I would imagine there will still be a great deal of debate among nations in regards to how diplomacy proceeds After First Contact. The UN would provide the ability to hear those differences and develop a plan of action. All of humanity has the right to participate in this process and the United Nations provides representation to do such.

A leadership role for the UN does not mean that other groups and organizations will be left on the sidelines. The scientific community is represented by a number of organizations that should work closely with the UN in guidance. The International Academy of Astronautics, NASA and the SETI Institute are just a few examples. The UN will need the help. The organization has done little to prepare for First Contact issues. The expertise lies with the scientific community and the small group of astrophysicists and other researchers who have taken the matter seriously.

In the long-term there would probably need to be changes in the nature of the United Nations, especially in terms of organization and scope. Those changes may need to be quite substantive. Still, the effort must start somewhere and the UN is the only group that can respond to the initial needs and challenges of First Contact.

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