The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2010 Volume 31 Issue 2
The many challenges facing the long-term sustainability of outer space go beyond militarization and potential weaponization. Although the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) remains the main priority for those involved with policy development for space activities at different multilateral forums, growing attention is being given to non-military threats to space security. Harm can be done to space assets when some actors in space are not aware of the activities of others in the same domain or are not in good control of their own assets. In others words, threats exist from a current lack of transparency and coordination.
The first ever collision between two orbiting satellites in 20091 underscores the need for concrete measures to enhance the safety and predictability of space operations. In what seems to have been an unforeseen event, a retired Russian communications satellite (Cosmos 2251) and a US provider of global mobile phone services (Iridium 33) collided in Low Earth Orbit over the North Pole, creating more than 1,700 pieces of trackable space debris. The fact that this collision occurred, even though the satellites belonged to countries with advanced tracking and surveillance systems, is a testament to the vulnerability of space assets and the importance of data-sharing among their operators.
Thus far, the development of an overarching space security framework has been painstakingly slow. International space actors have been unable to reach a consensus on the exact nature of a space security regime, despite having specific alternatives on the table for consideration. The latest such initiative is the European Union’s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. The final version is expected to be released later this year and will likely differ slightly from the draft (EU 2008) that has already been publicly circulated. However, judging from this draft, it seems unlikely that this Code of Conduct will fix all the limitations of the existing regime on space activities.
Primary characteristics of the EU’s Code of Conduct
The Code of Conduct (EU 2008, p. 8) calls on adherents to “implement national policies and procedures to minimize the possibility of accidents in space, collisions between space objects or any form of harmful interference with other States’ right to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space,” and to “refrain from any intentional action which will or might bring about, directly or indirectly, the damage or destruction of outer space objects.”
In addition, the Code of Conduct contains several provisions that place a great deal of importance on information-sharing, which has traditionally been observed rather inconsistently due to the sensitive nature of information about space activities. The Code establishes consultation mechanisms, commits signatories to annually share information on procedures to minimize the risk of collision, asks for timely notification of changes in space, and calls for the creation of an Outer Space Activities Database. Among the specific activities to be reported are:
- Scheduled manoeuvres that may result in dangerous proximity to other space objects
- Orbital changes and reentries as well as other relevant orbital parameters
- Any collisions or accidents
- Malfunctioning orbiting space objects with significant risk of reentry.
Because the Code is voluntary there is no legal obligation to abide by its precepts. In fact, the voluntary nature of the Code is often highlighted as a principal element that differentiates it from proposals such as the Sino-Russian Draft Space Security Treaty (PPWT) (CD 2008), which would be legally binding. Since the Code is voluntary, the argument goes, there is a greater chance of galvanizing the support of the international community and more spacefaring states will be inclined to embrace it as signatories. Still, it seems unlikely that a state would be inclined to sign on to the Code if there are provisions it is not ready to abide by, even if not compulsory.
The EU Code of Conduct fails to address some of the most controversial topics related to space security. Indeed, according to Arms Control Today, the Code “skirted many thorny issues that have plagued prior international efforts to prevent an arms race in outer space” (Abramson 2009). A statement made to the Conference of Disarmament (CD) by the Czech Republic (2009, p. 4) on behalf of the EU notes, “As the Code of Conduct would be voluntary and open to all states and would lay down the basic rules to be observed by space-faring nations, it does not include any provision concerning the specific question of non-placement of weapons in space.” It may be that the drafters of the Code opted to maximize the potential for widespread support among international space actors by setting a relatively low threshold on commitments, at least with regard to the military uses of space.
Another criticism has been directed at the drafting process. During informal sessions at a recent conference on space security held March 29-30 at the United Nations in Geneva,2 diplomats expressed reservations about the development of the Code of Conduct. To some, the process could have incorporated the views of more states beyond the EU, making the final document more democratic and reflecting a broader range of concerns. A similar argument can be made for more involvement by non-state actors that have a stake in space, such as commercial satellite operators.
Too Crowded a Table?
What are the potential implications of having several proposals competing for support? Conventional wisdom would suggest that proposals put forth by states—either as draft treaties or as non-binding Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures—are welcome developments that advance the space security agenda. However, there is a latent risk of polarization as proponents of each initiative look inward and focus on the merits of their own proposal to the neglect of others. Thus, efforts to forge consensus and galvanize support around each proposal may in fact result in further division and competition. Speaking off-the-record at the March 2010 space security conference in Geneva, a non-European diplomat speculated that, after the EU’s Code of Conduct is open for signatures by states in a few months, it will likely be at least five years before the EU countries even consider the merits of other proposals.
Currently two major space security proposals are vying for international support, in addition to the soon-to-be-unveiled EU Code of Conduct. The Sino-Russian draft treaty proposal, which seeks to place a prohibition on the placement of weapons in space, continues to be discussed in international space security forums. Although unable to get support from such major spacefaring powers as the US, the Russian and Chinese governments are still strong advocates of the merits of the draft treaty. Moreover, Russian and Chinese government officials have expressed a willingness to engage with the US in discussions, with the ultimate goal of producing a final version of the treaty that will be acceptable to all.
Another initiative recently presented at the CD is the 2009 Canadian proposal for space security regulations that would
- Ban the placement of weapons in space
- Prohibit the testing and use of weapons on satellites in order to damage or destroy them
- Prohibit the use of satellites as weapons.
Canada’s position has been seen by many as the middle ground between a ‘hard-law’ legally binding treaty such as the PPWT, and the ‘soft-law’ EU Code of Conduct. In fact, beyond naming the three principles on which space regulations should be based, Canada has expressed openness vis-à-vis the specific form that such a normative framework may take. On a statement to the CD on this topic, Ambassador Marius Grinius (Canada 2009) said that, to implement these principles, the CD should consider security guarantees “such as a declaration of legal principles, a code of conduct, or a treaty.”
Ideally, instead of three competing proposals producing deadlock, ways will be found to unite complementary elements from all serious proposals that address the most pressing space security challenges.
The EU Code of Conduct should not be dismissed outright as an ineffective instrument for advancing space security because it is not legally binding. As stated in a recent assessment by the European Space Policy Institute (2009, p. 4), “abiding by transparency and confidence building measures, such as the EU CoC, would play an essential role in international relations, and contribute to the progressive development of international law.” It remains to be seen whether it will also play an important role as a stepping stone on the path to a more robust space security regime.
- In-depth analysis of this event can be found here. See also Jessica West, 2009 Anarchy in space: The need for a comprehensive security regime for outer space, The Ploughshares Monitor, Summer, vol. 30, no. 2,
- The conference was co-sponsored by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research and Secure World Foundation, with the support of the Russian and Chinese governments.
Abramson, Jeff. 2009. EU Issues Space Code of Conduct. Arms Control Today, January/February.
Canada, Government of. 2009. Statement by Canada in the CD. March 26.
Conference on Disarmament. 2008. Draft Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects. CD/1839.
Czech Presidency. 2009. Statement by the Czech Presidency on Behalf of the European Union: “PAROS.” Conference on Disarmament. Geneva, February 12.
European Space Policy Institute. 2009. Relativity of Norms and Disarmament in Outer Space – What Role will the European Draft Code of Conduct Play? ESPI Perspectives 28, October 2009.
European Union, Council of the. 2008. Document 17175/08.