Update on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space

Tasneem Jamal

Author
Sarah Estabrooks

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2006 Volume 27 Issue 3

The foremost measure intended to address current gaps in the treaties relevant to space security is the “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space” (PAROS) resolution of the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee. In the past, PAROS has experienced near-unanimous support among UN members, but in recent years US interests have been a source of division. Such division has become increasingly apparent in the PAROS discussions of the past year.

The PAROS resolution reaffirms that, according to current international law, space is a global commons intended for peaceful activity. It also acknowledges that the current space treaty regime does not prevent a possible arms race in outer space. The Outer Space Treaty, the primary mechanism banning non-peaceful activities in space, does not address the full range of possible space weapons options. The resolution (A/C.1/60/L.27) refers this issue to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to negotiate “further measures with appropriate and effective verification mechanisms to prevent an arms race in outer space.”

After two resolutions on outer space, one supported by the Western Group and the other by the Soviet Union, were proposed in the 1981 First Committee, the issue was added to the CD’s 1982 agenda under the title “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.” Since compromise was reached in 1984 on a single PAROS resolution there has been strong support for PAROS. Along with some NATO allies in the late 1980s and, more recently, with Israel and a few microstates, the US consistently abstained on the resolution. In 2005, however, the US cast its first opposition vote against the First Committee resolution. In the subsequent General Assembly vote, Israel joined with a ‘no’ vote. The US complaint has consistently been that PAROS is not necessary because there is no arms race in outer space and therefore no need for an additional mechanism to regulate space activity.

The PAROS issue is one of the four items at the centre of the agenda debate in the CD and has been the object of one of the ‘linkages’. In the past China was insistent that it would not participate in negotiations on a fissile material measure without concomitant negotiations on PAROS. In 2003 it softened its position, agreeing to PAROS ‘discussions’ in lieu of formal negotiations and the agenda proposal still on the table; however, consensus using this formulation has not yet been reached. Recent informal CD discussions – an alternative to the formal subcommittee negotiations blocked by the deadlock – have featured sessions on PAROS. With strong support from diverse states including China, Egypt, Germany, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Canada, proposals for a draft treaty, definitional parameters, and verification measures have been put forward.

An informal debate on PAROS was held in June 2006 as part of the “Six Presidents” initiative led by the current year’s CD presidents. Canada contributed a useful working paper outlining the gaps in the current space treaty regime according to widely accepted concepts of potential space weapons designs. Russia and China provided further substantive material to build on their past work on definitions and draft language. Although there were some very positive contributions, the informal discussions saw some unfortunate developments. The UK, while evidently still in support of some kind of space weapons measure, demonstrated hesitance, noting that “discussion on PAROS is at an early stage and that there are many unanswered questions, not least on defining the terms of the debate” (Duncan, 2006).

However, the US statement delivered by John Mohanco (2006) caused the most concern. Expounding at length on why there was no consensus on PAROS, the statement declared: “As long as the potential for such attacks [on satellites] remains, our Government will continue to consider the possible role that space-related weapons may play in protecting our assets.” This position is considered justifiable because of a US interpretation of the concept of ‘peaceful uses’ that includes “appropriate defensive activities in pursuit of national security and other goals.”

Without an agenda and accompanying negotiating mandate on PAROS, these discussions, regardless of the level of technical substance, will not significantly affect space security. At the same time, the US is considering possible weapons options and developing the foundational technologies to weaponize space if the political climate should permit deployment. Securing outer space cannot depend solely on resolution of the PAROS debate. Rather, immediate measures to manage space activity, mitigate the production of orbital debris, and build transparency must be pursued concurrently.

 

References

Duncan, John 2006, Statement by H.E. Ambassador John Duncan, UK Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, 8 June.

Mohanco, John 2006, Delegation of the United States to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, 13 June.

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