A Space Weapons Ban: Laying the Foundation

Tasneem Jamal

Sarah Estabrooks

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2004 Volume 25 Issue 3 

In the spring election campaign, and more recently in debates about potential participation in the US ballistic missile defence system, Paul Martin stated repeatedly that Canada is opposed to the weaponization of space. But how does this seemingly entrenched policy play out in practical terms? What is Canada doing to actualize a ban on space weapons, and how are other nations contributing to this debate? The past year has seen encouraging developments on this issue, with a re-emergence of the debate in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) that challenged old assumptions and posited new steps forward.

The UN’s negotiating body for arms control measures, the CD, has been unable to achieve consensus on a program of work for the past eight years. One of the critical issues to suffer because of this impasse is negotiation of the proposed space weapons ban known as Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space or PAROS. The US has opposed PAROS, arguing that there is no arms race in outer space, but favours another item on the agenda, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). China and Russia are strong proponents of PAROS, and have refused to move ahead on the FMCT without advancing PAROS in parallel. In 2003 China agreed to discussions without negotiations and Russia quickly followed suit. The US, however, has failed to offer its support for a program of discussions in ad hoc committees, so that no agenda has yet been approved.

The continued inability to commence negotiations on any agenda items in 2004 led the CD President to call for a series of informal discussions on several issues, including cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament, prevention of nuclear war, PAROS, negative security assurances, new types of weapons of mass destruction, a comprehensive program of disarmament, and transparency in armaments. These discussions were considered a significant development in a forum that has not advanced beyond setting an agenda for six years. On May 27 the closed session of informal debate on PAROS was held, in which 18 CD member states and one group of states made statements. The President issued a report the following week, summing up the discussions and highlighting areas for further debate.

Pending creation of an ad hoc committee, states called for establishment of a CD expert group, or meetings with experts present, to discuss broader technical questions about space weapons. Clearly there is interest in laying the groundwork for eventual negotiation of a space weapons ban, including defining the terms for such a treaty, and debating the options for verifying the ban. Proposals include a Code of Conduct for space activities to build confidence between space-faring nations and protect the fragile orbits on which we have come to depend; a moratorium on the development, testing, and deployment of space weapons; and national statements pledging to maintain the norm against space weaponization.

Even without achieving consensus on an agenda for the 2004 session of the CD, productive discussions were held on PAROS and steps forward were proposed. On August 26, PAROS was again the subject of discussions in an open plenary session of the CD. In this session statements were delivered by Canada, China, France, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sweden, and the UK – all advocates of action on the PAROS item to establish a space weapons ban.

Sri Lanka has traditionally been a prominent supporter of the peaceful uses of space, and reiterated this position in the CD, including its support for a moratorium on the testing and development of space weapons until a multilateral ban is in place. Further, Sri Lanka noted that “recent calls for a series of independent declarations from major space faring nations that they would not be the first to deploy weapons in space, would provide considerable protection to existing space assets until a treaty could be negotiated.”

Sweden called for further informal discussions on the issue with a wide range of space stakeholders and addressing some of the technical questions. This approach, a broadening of the space weapons debate, would address the “dual-use nature” of space technologies and “cross-cutting issues between civil and military activities.”

France affirmed its support for the non-weaponization of space, an arena over which none could claim a monopoly. The French position includes three principles of space activity: free access for all for peaceful applications; maintenance of the security and integrity of orbital satellites; and consideration for the legitimate defence interests of states.

Canada has long been a leader in promoting the non-weaponization of space, including the resolution of the PAROS issue in the CD. Addressing the CD in March 2004, then Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham expressed dismay at the continued inaction of the CD in the face of ever increasing security challenges. He called for action on a series of arms control priorities, highlighting a “fundamental Canadian goal” of creating a treaty to ban space weapons. Calling this treaty essential for our “collective security,” Graham illustrated a more comprehensive approach to military, civil, and industrial concerns about space security.

Later in March this approach to “integrate space security issues with the international community’s needs for secure and equitable access to space for peaceful purposes” was examined at a workshop for CD delegates entitled “Safeguarding Space for All,” hosted by Canada with several partners including The Simons Foundation and Project Ploughshares. This event looked at concerns of all actors in the fragile arena of space, and introduced several concepts including a Code of Conduct for space activities, and the Space Security Index, a comprehensive annual assessment of space security.

Canada addressed the August plenary, in which it focused on defining the technical parameters and terms for a potential space weapons ban. There is no universal definition of a space weapon. For instance, is it defined by the location of the target or of the weapon, or by the weapon’s intended effects or its method of achieving those effects? Canada noted that before any negotiation of an arms control measure can commence, there must be a common understanding of key terms.

In arms control negotiations the question of verification is a regular stumbling point, and PAROS is no exception. With a history of concern for verification, Canada identified verification provisions as another essential component of future treaty negotiations. China, on the other hand, argued that negotiations need not be further delayed by addressing the question of verification. In a jointly sponsored “non-paper” entitled Verification Aspects of PAROS, China and Russia concluded that “for the time being a future outer space legal instrument can be formulated without a verification mechanism. With the development of science and technology, the addition of a verification protocol may be considered in future when conditions are ripe.” The paper highlighted a variety of options for verification mechanisms, some incorporating remote-sensing surveys, like PAXSAT or an international space monitoring agency; and others involving ground-based on-site inspections. Assessing the feasibility of the various political, technical, and financial challenges was not considered immediately possible.

China and Russia presented a second paper, Existing International Legal Instruments and Prevention of the Weaponization of Space. This paper stated that “existing international legal instruments are inadequate to prevent outer space from being weaponized” and went on to review the current legal regime governing use of space. The primary treaties identified were the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement, and the Convention on Environment. This body of law does not address testing, deployment, or use of weapons besides nuclear or weapons of mass destruction in earth orbit, nor does it cover the use of force against objects in outer space, including from earth, air, or sea. The paper concludes that the advancement of science and technology, and the emergence of military doctrines that include space components create the need for strengthened international laws in these areas.

The space security debate must be extended beyond the CD so that the concerns of all stakeholders are taken into consideration. At the multilateral level, the policy debate is split between the CD and the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), affiliated with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, which is concerned with international cooperation in space, particularly scientific and technical concerns, including space debris mediation, and the legal treaties governing human exploration of space. The International Telecommunications Office has another role to play in the distribution of orbital slots and radiofrequency allotments for satellite operations. Civil and commercial space actors have not typically been engaged in the debate on space weaponization, yet their interests in securing sustainable use of and access to outer space, without the threat of space weapons, are significant.

A comprehensive picture of the threats to space security is only beginning to emerge. Awareness is growing in the civil, commercial, and military space sectors of the fragile nature of the space environment and the impact of human activity there. Synthetic space debris, overcrowding of desirable earth orbits, and the risk of accidents are among the most immediate threats to satellites and space assets. War in space would pose an even greater threat to our reliance on space for peaceful purposes. Effective interim and long-term solutions to these concerns, most importantly a space weapons ban, must take into consideration environmental, commercial, scientific, legal, and military space interests to secure space for peaceful uses and the collective benefit of humankind.

Conference on Disarmament Session for 2004.

United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) 2004, Safeguarding Space for All: Security and Peaceful Uses, Conference Report, 25-26 March, Geneva.

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