January 27, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), one of the most successful international treaties ever concluded. Negotiated in an era of intense military competition sparked by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Treaty created a legal framework for the governance of outer space, based on the principle that space is a global commons to be used for peaceful purposes for the benefit of all peoples.
The OST is a forward-looking agreement to prevent conflict in outer space by banning the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit, restricting conventional weapons on the Moon and other celestial bodies, and avoiding “a new form of colonial competition” and exploitation in space.
While the OST has been remarkably successful, it is facing new and old governance and security challenges. The absence of major 50th-anniversary celebrations could be a sign that OST objectives are being eroded.
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 1 Spring 2017 by Jessica West
Paul Meyer served as Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Office of the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva from 2003-2007. In 2007 he served as the CD’s Special Coordinator for its agenda item Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).
Meyer is a Senior Fellow in Space Security at The Simons Foundation and a Fellow in International Security, Centre for Dialogue, at Simon Fraser University.
Jessica West: Tell us about your initial involvement with outer space security.
Paul Meyer: My professional interest dates back to the mid-1980s when I worked for the Arms Control and Disarmament Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa. The now defunct Verification Research Unit of the division was at that time serving as an intellectual dynamo. One of its major projects was “PAXSAT,” which examined the feasibility of using satellite technology to verify a ban on space weapons, a goal that Canada was actively promoting at the time. The project concluded that verification of such a ban was possible. It was exciting to witness the synergy around the PAXSAT project, with private sector technical experts working alongside policy officers.
Later, when I was serving as Director General of the International Security Bureau, I was made aware of the crucial interrelationship between issues of space security, ballistic missile defence, and strategic force reductions.
During my posting in Geneva as Ambassador to the UN and Conference on Disarmament, I had to contend with the CD’s agenda item on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space and the complex diplomatic processes connected with attempting to advance this issue at both the CD and the UN General Assembly.
JW: How have space security dynamics changed?
PM: Space security has been marked by steady continuity in some aspects (that is, annual resolutions of declaratory policy coupled to practical neglect), as well as the reemergence of threats long considered moribund (such as anti-satellite weapons [ASATs]). A striking feature has been the major expansion in outer space activity, with the initial restricted club of space powers transformed into a varied community of some 60 state satellite owners and a large private sector/civil society component. Obviously a related and less positive development has been the increase of space debris and the hazard it now poses for safe space operations in low Earth orbits.
JW: Does the space policy landscape look different when examined through a “civil society” rather than a “government” lens?
PM: I would like to think that a common understanding exists regarding the imperative to maintain outer space as a safe and secure operating environment. Of course, each group of space actors will look upon policy in a way that reflects its priorities. For government, issues of national and international security will naturally loom large, but I believe that the private sector, academia, and civil society will increasingly recognize the significance of space security to meet their own objectives.
JW: Could outer space—like land, sea, and air—become an arena for military confrontation? Or is it different somehow?
PM: Fortunately, outer space enjoys a different status under international law from the terrestrial domains, which should enable it to be sustained as an environment free from human-fashioned hazards. This legal status has to be upheld in state practice to be truly effective. Outer space is a fragile environment and the effects of damaging actions cannot be restricted or contained as they might be on Earth.
JW: Why is the Outer Space Treaty important?
PM: The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 represents one of the greatest achievements of preventive diplomacy. At an early stage of the space era it established in law a set of principles and obligations that has enabled outer space to be preserved as a relatively benign environment.
Granting outer space the status of a “global commons” beyond the reach of national appropriation and sovereign claims was a great conflict-prevention measure. Think of all the conflicts on Earth that have sprung from competing territorial claims.
Add to this the express condition that activity under the Treaty should be for peaceful purposes and that any eventual benefits should be shared with all and a strong cooperative imperative is projected. The prohibition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in orbit and any militarization of celestial bodies, as well as the provisions for consultation, observation, and visits to space-related facilities represent important contributions to a cooperative security paradigm for outer space.
JW: What are the biggest challenges facing the Treaty?
PM: Frankly, the OST suffers from neglect. It is a huge disappointment that the OST’s 50th anniversary is not being marked in a manner commensurate with the Treaty’s importance.
I had proposed a special meeting of states parties to the OST in its 50th-anniversary year. This would have been the first time that states parties had come together, as the OST had made no provisions for follow-up meetings. Civil society groups have echoed this call for the 104 states parties to come together to mark this milestone, but regrettably it has not been championed by the states, in particular the three depository governments: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia.
I am concerned that “dark forces” among space actors may seek to weaken the constraints represented by the OST and pursue actions incompatible with the existing regime.
JW: Weapons-enabling technologies are being developed for use in outer space and missile defence systems have demonstrated their use against satellites. How concerned are you? Are you optimistic about the prospects for a new agreement to extend the regulatory regime for use of force in outer space?
PM: The reemergence of ASAT development and testing in recent years, after a de facto moratorium for a quarter of a century, is very disturbing. Destructive ASAT capabilities are especially destabilizing when combined with the accumulation of space debris since the end of the Cold War. Irresponsible state action could render certain orbits unusable.
The space security stakeholder community cannot afford to stand idly by in the face of such threats. There is a real need to revitalize space security diplomacy and extend the ban on WMD set out in the OST to cover all weapons.
In addition, arrangements to constrain detrimental state conduct in space should be pursued with determination. I saw promise in the European Union-initiated proposal for an International Code of Conduct (ICoC) for outer space activities. The ICoC’s provision of institutional support for an ongoing dialogue among states and stakeholders would have helped to overcome deficiencies of the OST. I remain hopeful that the EU and/or other states will make the diplomatic effort to initiate a new multilateral negotiation under UN auspices to develop the ICoC.
JW: Private/commercial actors are becoming significant players in outer space and are poised to lead new activities, such as space mining and space exploration, which were unimaginable 50 years ago. How well equipped is the Outer Space Treaty to govern this new reality?
PM: The OST drafters were prescient in their recognition of the role non-state actors would play in space exploration and use and provided for this in the treaty, albeit based on the principle of state responsibility (and hence control) of such activity. One of the benefits of a meeting of states parties to the OST would be to enable a discussion of this theme and how the principles and provisions of the Treaty could be best fulfilled under contemporary and future circumstances.
JW: Is it your impression that outer space constitutes a priority for the Canadian government? Why/why not?
PM: Regrettably, space seems to have slipped in priority for the Canadian Government over the last couple of decades. Canadian leadership in the diplomacy of space security has become a distant memory and we have not made a significant contribution in this field for a decade.
JW: The Canadian government released a Space Policy Framework in 2014. Is it an adequate guide?
PM: I hope it has been relegated to the recycling bins because it was a very poor product, more of a trade fair flyer than a white paper on space. Its paragraphs on space security were particularly egregious, a strange mixture of regurgitated U.S. Department of Defense phrases, combined with odd claims to project our sovereignty into space.
The current Government has launched a defence policy review, the discussion paper for which had some rather thin and problematic references to space security. The foreign policy dimension of outer space was not at all in evidence. We will have to await the review’s outcome to render any judgment on how outer space as an issue has been treated.
One would hope that the current Government would want to formulate a distinct space policy that would incorporate security and governance issues as well as technological and commercial aspects. It would be fitting to see such a policy development process at least launched in this 50th anniversary of the OST and the 150th year of the Canadian confederation.