The UK process on norms and space security

Jessica West Featured, Reports, Space Security

By Jessica West
Research contribution by Emily Standfield

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On December 7, 2020, the United Kingdom-sponsored United Nations Resolution A/RES/75/36 was adopted by the UN General Assembly. Seeking to focus the global discussion on outer space security on ways of “reducing threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviour,” the objective is to build consensus on what it means to be a “responsible” actor in outer space.

The resolution is in line with the focus of the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security on the “prevention of an arms race in outer space” (PAROS). This committee has long wanted to establish a working group on the subject at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), but the CD has been stuck in a political logjam for decades and so almost no practical progress on PAROS has occurred. Some initiatives have been proposed over the years, most recently the draft treaty Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Space Objects (PPWT), tabled by Russia and China and last updated in 2014. It, too, has been stalled by political and technical challenges.

Resolution 75/36 is being presented as a new way to advance efforts on improving space security, particularly in relation to military activities and behaviours in outer space.

What do norms have to do with preventing an arms race?

Norms and measures to prevent an arms race (or to control arms) are intimately linked.

Norms are broadly defined as rules of behaviour rooted in shared values and societal expectations of appropriate conduct. In other words, norms are based on a common understanding of what “good” behaviour means and impose a strong social and moral obligation to comply. While many norms are voluntary, they aren’t always; norms can be codified and form the basis of legal or other formal agreements.

Many behavioural rules and practices serve as transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs), which are primary tools of both strategic stability and arms control. The promotion of such TCBMs has long been linked to PAROS.

Although arms control is commonly associated with the restricting of hardware—including certain capabilities and the types and numbers of weapons—the regulation and restriction of behaviour also fall under this rubric. Measures that restrict or encourage certain actions help to prevent hostilities and crisis escalation—and the subsequent resort to the use of weapons.

Sometimes behavioural norms become formal agreements. For instance, the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement includes rules to prevent collisions, avoid interference, limit manoeuvres, use clear signals, and provide prior notification of certain activities. The goal was to enhance mutual knowledge of military activities, reduce the possibility of accidental conflict, and increase stability. Some arms control agreements, such as test bans, specifically prohibit certain uses of weapons rather than the hardware itself. The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, for example, prohibits the testing of nuclear weapons under water, in the atmosphere, or in outer space.

Behavioural rules are particularly helpful in controlling multi-use capabilities or activities that are difficult to discern or verify. For example, The Hague Code of Conduct is a voluntary agreement to implement TCBMs—such as pre-launch notifications—related to missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

Almost all arms control agreements that restrict hardware also include behavioural measures to aid implementation, such as notifications, reporting, information sharing, and other transparency practices. And most arms control agreements are themselves an expression of norms, such as the non-use of heinous weapons.

Is this focus on norms new?

The short answer is no.

Interest in what some experts called behavioural “rules of the road” developed in the early 1980s during debates about a ban on anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. In 2008, the European Union led an initiative to draft a code of conduct for outer space activities—voluntary rules to “enhance the safety, security and predictability of outer space activities” and “prevent outer space from becoming an area of conflict.”

Although the draft code became the basis for international negotiations aimed at building consensus, the process ultimately stalled. Some states objected to the non-inclusive process; the code was drafted by European countries and negotiated outside the United Nations. Some objected to an agreement that would not be legally binding, while still others objected to any restrictions on space activities.

 What makes the current approach novel?

Resolution 75/36 seeks to start a new conversation. It calls on states to study and characterize activities “that could be considered responsible, irresponsible or threatening” and to share ideas on how to further develop norms of responsible behaviour. The aim is to “reach a common understanding of how best to act to reduce threats to space systems in order to maintain outer space as a peaceful, safe, stable and sustainable environment,” as a first step to formal discussions that could lead to “further consideration of legally binding instruments in this area.”

This initiative is fully within the mandate of the United Nations and is specifically tied to the objective of PAROS. It is structured as an inclusive, open-ended discussion without a predetermined outcome.

 How much support did Resolution 75/36 generate?

Resolution 75/36 received strong support in the General Assembly vote, with 162 members in favour, 12 against, and six abstentions. This voting outcome reflects the rising fears of many states of the threat posed to space-based systems by weapons capabilities on Earth and by a broad range of emerging technical capabilities in space. It also reflects support for an approach, favoured by many, that prioritizes TCBM measures and voluntary rules.

While many UN member states prefer a new legally binding instrument to address a new arms race in outer space, most are willing to accept the development of norms as a first step. Other states view the two approaches as complementary. (Read a summary of voting and statements at the UN First Committee here).

However, the final vote does not necessarily illustrate the obstacles that preceded it. Many sub-sections were put to separate votes; objections were both procedural and political.

Russia, for example, attempted to block the initial vote on the resolution in the UN First Committee, where it originated. It argued that the resolution was not a matter for this committee, which is mandated to discuss disarmament and international security issues, such as PAROS. The resolution, Russia claimed, did not address PAROS.

In Russia’s view, the resolution was a matter for the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS), which reports to the Fourth Committee and is specifically mandated to discuss peaceful uses of outer space. COPUOS has already developed a set of voluntary rules that promote safety and sustainability in outer space, although they do not consider behaviours deemed to relate to security or the military.

India, among other states, found some terms subjective and open to a variety of interpretations. While not convinced that there was one view on “responsible and irresponsible” behaviours and a common “perception” of threats, India voted in favour of the resolution as a whole (results of sub-section votes are available here under resolution A/C.1/75/L.45/Rev.1).

Who has responded to the Resolution?

The resolution called on Member States to submit views on the nature of both threats and responsible behaviours in outer space. In total, 29 countries filed submissions. However, even though the UK offered states capacity-building support to draft responses, only a few developing states—Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and Mexico—submitted reports. Most submissions were from Western states (including the United States and Canada) and non-Western states with significant space programs (India, China, and Russia).

Some organizations, including the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Secure World Foundation, and Project Ploughshares, also submitted responses.

 What are the major concerns of Member States?

A few themes emerge, bearing strong similarities to those identified in recent Project Ploughshares research.


  1. Debris

Almost all states are concerned about the production of space debris and the long-term sustainability of the space environment As Australia notes, “Debris remains one of the most significant space threats to all nations and all attempts should be made to limit the deliberate creation of debris, particularly large debris clouds.” It should be noted that the intentional creation of space debris goes against obligations laid out in the Outer Space Treaty.

While states such as Russia and Ukraine point to debris and sustainability challenges posed by the accelerated launching of mega-constellations in low Earth orbit, most focus on the impact of kinetic weapons and other intentional collisions with space objects, which, Sweden notes, “constitute a threat not only to the targeted space object, but also to other space objects, the services that they provide, and the space environment as a whole.”

  1. Weapons

Many states are also concerned about the development and use of ASATs and other weapons in space. The United States notes, “Some States are developing, operationalizing, and stockpiling a variety of ASAT weapons that could be used to, or have the potential to, deny, disrupt, degrade, or destroy civil, commercial, or national security space capabilities and services.” Russia sees certain states “creating a space-based anti-missile grouping (including interceptors)” and views such developments as a “means to exert unauthorized impact on objects of orbital space infrastructure.” China also points to warfighting and weapons—including missile defence systems—as the most “prominent and pressing concerns.”

States are concerned not only with the physical damage that weapons would cause in space, but about secondary damage and human impacts caused by disruption to, or destruction of, critical infrastructure capabilities.

  1. Dual-use capabilities

Many of the technologies and capabilities used in outer space are dual- or multi-use, having military and security as well as civilian functions. They can be used to help or to harm and it is not always easy to determine which motivation is in play.

Submissions focus on the combination of advanced robotics with capabilities for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO). For example, the Netherlands notes that capabilities for debris removal, as well as satellite servicing, repair, and refueling, can all be used to intentionally damage a satellite. The challenge of dual-use capabilities is compounded by the opaque operating environment of space, which South Korea describes as lacking transparency and with limited verification capabilities, making the nature or intention of activities difficult to discern.

  1. Harmful interference

“Harmful interference” is often cited as a matter of concern. It usually refers to electronic and other non-kinetic means of interference with the operations of a satellite system. Other non-kinetic threats are cyber interference and the use of lasers. Of special concern to many is interference with the command and control of satellite systems; Germany registers specific concern for those systems linked to the command and control of nuclear weapons systems.

 Responsible behaviours

There is also a strong similarity between the Ploughshares research and the UN submissions on the types of processes and behaviours that should be taken to mitigate security risks in space. Beyond encouraging compliance with existing international law, specific measures include the following.

1. Transparency measures

States strongly support a range of transparency measures that both build confidence in the space activities of others and reduce risks. They include:

a) Better implementation of existing tools and commitments.

Ireland promotes recommendations of the 2013 Group of Governmental Experts. Sweden recommends the guidelines on the long-term sustainability of outer space adopted by UN COPUOS and The Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.

b) Notification, communication, and information exchange.

Some states suggest specific practices that could contribute to operational transparency in outer space. Many see the benefits of notifications and enhanced communication and information exchanges on planned activities. Such practices are essential not only to safety in space, but can help to reveal intentions, as noted by Brazil. Dual-use activities such as RPOs are particularly ripe for enhanced transparency practices.

c) Space situational awareness (SSA) and verification.

Many states support the gathering and sharing of SSA data. Such cooperation is linked to the verification of behaviours and activities on orbit. For example, France notes that data sharing is essential for the implementation of a notification regime system for manoeuvres in space and will also “give more visibility to the destruction and loss of control of objects in space.” Verification measures are specifically raised by Slovenia, the European Union, Germany, and Canada.

States without independent capabilities are especially eager to advance the case for such sharing of data. Iran asserts that, as there is currently “no integral verification regime/technology to help monitor/verify responsible behaviour standards,” “developed countries’ activities won’t be monitored.”

2. Banning the use of kinetic weapons and tests

There is also strong support for some sort of ban on the testing and use of kinetic weapons. Achieving this goal requires the expansion of norms and voluntary rules to include formal legal agreements. While many states seem to believe that a commitment not to engage in such activity is “responsible behaviour,” Canada goes further and supports “discussions, in the context of the Conference on Disarmament, on a possible ban on testing and use of ASATs which cause space debris.” This position is echoed by Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, and Switzerland.

3. Consultations and deconfliction

A few suggestions related to measures to prevent the escalation of conflict, such as consultations, deconfliction, and de-escalation mechanisms. France, Germany, and Slovenia all support such measures, while Italy specifically calls for the establishment or extension of de-escalation mechanisms “to prevent miscalculation and misunderstanding allowing for timely information-sharing.”

What do non-state organizations have to say?

There are nine submissions from non-state actors, which are also concerned about space debris and weapons in space, and support additional TCBMs such as notifications, registration, information sharing, and disclosure. While non-state actors strongly support the sharing of SSA data, UNIDR and the RAND Corporation both view such sharing from the perspective of safety rather than security. These non-state actors are keen to link safety and security in space.

Non-state actors make two distinct contributions.

  1. Clarification of definitions and key concepts

Non-state contributors generally agree on the urgent need to clearly define key terms relating to space security. The Observer Research Foundation, RAND, and UNIDIR all expressed concern that terms such as “space weapon,” “peaceful uses of space,” “due regard,” and “harmful interference” have been given multiple interpretations. Even basic terms, like “space objects” and “space debris,” do not seem to mean the same thing to all states.

States also disagree on concepts or processes that are at the core of space security, such as what constitutes a use of force against space objects or what is acceptable as self-defence. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues in its submission, “Effective implementation of treaties like the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 hinges on Member States sharing common conceptions of the imposed obligations and duties.” Consensus on how these ideas are to be understood and how they are interpreted in existing international law is seen as necessary to mitigate security risks.

  1. Humanitarian concerns

The ICRC calls on states to acknowledge “the potentially significant human cost for civilians on earth of the use of weapons in outer space” and “the protection afforded by the IHL [international humanitarian law] rules that restrict belligerents’ choice of means and methods of warfare, including in outer space, on the understanding that acknowledging the applicability of IHL neither legitimizes the weaponization of or hostilities in outer space, nor in any way encourages or justifies the use of force in outer space.” This demand links responsible behaviour in space to IHL and the costs to civilians if weapons are used in space.

The submission by Project Ploughshares touches on all the above points.

 What future steps are planned?

The UN Secretary-General is expected to issue a report that summarizes submissions in August 2021. The UK is currently consulting with UN Member States on a draft General Assembly resolution that would advance this process. Among the options that might be considered next are the creation of another Group of Governmental Experts and a more inclusive and participatory Open-Ended Working Group, similar to the one on cyber that recently concluded.

As was the case with cyber, this process could develop along several paths and lead to more than one outcome. While the immediate focus of the resolution is to advance voluntary norms, rules, and principles to mitigate security risks in outer space, it remains true that many states believe that PAROS can only be achieved through a new legally binding treaty. For example, while supporting the current process, “India continues to support substantive consideration of Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) within the multilateral framework of the UN and remains committed to the negotiation of a universally acceptable and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument on PAROS in the Conference on Disarmament.”

There is also strong support to work on a more limited ban on the use of weapons that create space debris. And states such as Iran continue to object to the very premise of this process.

The process so far reveals the many challenges to security in outer space and the need for many answers. Going forward, states and organizations must ensure that the possible solutions complement rather than work against each other.

Photo: Voting results for the draft resolution at the UN First Committee, November 6, 2020.

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