This statement was drafted on behalf of civil society by Project Ploughshares Senior Researcher Jessica West. Dr. West presented it to the United Nations General Assembly First Committee for Disarmament and International Security on October 13, 2020.
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 4 Winter 2020
We have just marked World Space Week, designated by the United Nations to celebrate the contributions of space to the betterment of humanity. This year’s theme is “Satellites Improve Life.” Never has this been more evident than during the Covid-19 pandemic, when satellite communications have become a universal lifeline in a time of physical separation.
Today, our dependence on space is matched by its growing vulnerability to the use of weapons and the conduct of warfare.
While the international community has struggled to preserve outer space as a peaceful domain free of weapons, an arms race has been bubbling beneath the surface.
We know that electronic warfare – the jamming of satellite communications – is rampant.
We have witnessed three states demonstrate a hit-to-kill anti-satellite capability using ground-based weapons systems; this capability is not limited to these actors.
There is evidence that the development of other anti-satellite capabilities such as directed energy weapons is accelerating.
And there are suggestions that satellites with weapons capabilities may already be in orbit.
These actions threaten war. No one wants it, yet multiple states are actively preparing for it. The risk of unintentional conflict through mishaps, misinterpretations, and miscommunications is great.
Diplomatic action is needed.
At this Committee, support for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space – PAROS – remains strong. But the divides over how to implement this objective – whether through legal restrictions, political commitments or normative understandings of responsible behaviour – remain equally strong. These are not mutually exclusive options. None can progress without efforts to enhance trust and transparency.
It’s time to reset the conversation. A new initiative by the United Kingdom to support “a global discussion to avoid conflict in space” is welcomed. By asking what kind of behaviours or activities in space seem threatening, there is an opportunity to find common ground and to avoid slipping into unwanted military confrontations. But success will depend on good-faith participation, as well as a willingness to listen. These are qualities that should be applied to all initiatives.
It is in this spirit that we also urge states to:
- Oppose the use of any space-based or ground-based capabilities to deliberately disrupt, damage or destroy space assets.
- Indicate support for an agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space, and for necessary transparency and confidence-building measures towards that end.
Beyond these political commitments, there is a clear need for states to lead through example: to refrain from testing weapons systems targeting space, to bring greater transparency to military activities, to demonstrate the type of behaviours in outer space that contribute to stability and peaceful uses, and to call out those who violate these principles.
Any use of force in outer space would be difficult to contain. There is no separate zone in outer space for warfighting: the whole domain would become the battlefield. It threatens thousands of satellites, connected to billions of people all around the world. It risks mass contamination of a fragile environment. And it has the potential to spill over into other domains. We cannot wait for a crisis to act.
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Canadian Pugwash Group