A cautious optimism marked the opening of debates on outer space at the United Nations First Committee on Disarmament and International Security this past October. However, serious divisions quickly became apparent.
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 4 Winter 2017 by Jessica West
No weapons in outer space, yet
Proposals were advanced to overcome the longstanding stagnation of efforts to enhance global security and prevent the weaponization of outer space. Russia and China proposed the establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to make recommendations on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), which has been stalled on the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) for almost three decades. And sponsors of what is now an annual resolution on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) in outer space supported discussion of practical implementation measures at the UN Disarmament Commission.
There was also support for efforts to advance multilateral negotiations of a new arms control treaty. Kazakhstan, members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Pakistan, Algeria, South Africa, Cuba, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Venezuela specifically supported the draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), tabled by Russia and China in 2008 and 2014. But the United States, the European Union, Australia, France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, among others, had reservations about this specific text, particularly about the lack of a definition of space weapons, lack of verification, and silence on use of terrestrial anti-satellite weapons (ASATs).
States could not agree on how to confront the ongoing development of ASATs, the dual uses of anti-ballistic missile systems, and the potential deployment of ABMs in outer space. Should the focus be on weapons in space or the use of terrestrial-based anti-satellite weapons? Should states seek to negotiate new, legally binding measures in the CD or adopt voluntary actions? Potential for proliferation and parallels to nuclear weapons were raised by Kazakhstan and Pakistan, with the latter asserting that this time the burden of nonproliferation will not be borne by developing countries.
Voting on resolutions
Sri Lanka and others again tabled resolution L.3, Prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), which calls on the CD to establish a working group. Noting that it has been on the agenda of the CD for more than three decades, Pakistan called the time “ripe” to negotiate a treaty. While the United States and Israel abstained from the vote, the resolution otherwise received universal support.
Support was widespread for advancing efforts to implement the TCBMs recommended by the 2013 Group of Governmental Experts. China, Russia, and the United States once again tabled Resolution L.46, Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space, which was adopted by consensus. The United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia indicated that implementation measures would be added to the agenda of the United Nations Disarmament Commission in 2018. This approach seems to be the most viable path forward, with Australia suggesting that the process could lead to recommendations to the CD.
Resolution L.53, No first placement of weapons in outer space, had 17 co-sponsors this year, although the EU and Switzerland questioned its effectiveness as a TCBM. The resolution was adopted with a vote of 122-4-48 (for, against, abstained). In explaining its vote against the resolution, the United States noted the failure to define a weapon and to address threats posed by terrestrial anti-satellite weapons. Voting yes, India noted that such a political commitment, while not a substitute for legal measures, did prevent weapons in outer space. European states abstained, expressing a preference for a focus on behaviour in space. Abstainers Canada, Japan, and Australia jointly called for measures that produce practical rather than political effects.
Voting results for L.54, Further practical measures for prevention of an arms race in outer space, were 121-5-45. Resolutions in previous years called on the CD to consider the PPWT. L.54 called for a GGE to be established to make recommendations on a new legal instrument to prevent an arms race in outer space. In voting against, the United States and the United Kingdom noted that this process is intended to remain tied to the existing draft treaty, which offers no definition of a space weapon and subsequently no ability for verification, and expressed no concern for ASATs. Russia claimed once again that reference to the use of force covered ASATs and it called on European states not to be constrained by NATO.
While these voting results are not remarkably different from those of previous years, the focus on one topic has shifted from the future to the present. Many states explicitly referenced concerns about existing weapons programs and their potential use in outer space. Now time continues to tick away as states engage in what often appears to be a politics of procrastination.