Disarmament Insight


Monday, 11 June 2012

Conference on Disarmament: Outer Space

These insights - provided by Theresa Hitchens, Director, UNIDIR - were offered as an abbreviated backgrounder to the current thematic debate in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on a core issue on the CD’s agenda, the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. Participants in that debate on 5 June will have heard the CD’s president, Ambassador Kahiluotu draw on many of the following points.
The Conference on Disarmament – then the Committee on Disarmament – began formal deliberations of the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) in 1985, with the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on PAROS. This followed from several earlier initiatives within the United Nations General Assembly – initiated by the then-Soviet Union in 1981.
The UNGA adopted two resolutions regarding arms control and outer space in 1981: A/RES/36/97, sponsored by the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG) which asked the CD to negotiate a treaty to ban anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons; and A/RES/36/99, sponsored by the Eastern European states, which urged the Committee to negotiate a treaty banning the placement of weapons in outer space. In 1982, General Assembly resolution A/RES/37/83 called on the then-titled Committee on Disarmament to prioritize the issue of “the prevention of an arms race in outer space” and to establish an ad hoc committee during its 1983 session.
Thus the term PAROS was born as reflecting a compromise between the two earlier, more specific resolutions – which in turn represent long-standing differences that exist to some extent to this day about how to prioritize threats to space security.
The Ad Hoc Committee was tasked “to examine as a first step at this stage, through substantive and general consideration, issues relevant to the prevention of an arms race in outer space.” The programme of work was established as follows:
1. Examination and consideration of issues relevant to PAROS
2. Examination and consideration of existing agreements relevant to PAROS, and
3. Examination and consideration of existing proposals and future initiatives on PAROS.
Unfortunately, the fundamentally different perceptions of security threats, priorities and methods to address them ultimately doomed the Ad Hoc Committee’s efforts. The Committee met annually from 1985 to 1994, each year failing to result in any agreed pathway forward. Differences among states included the question of whether or not new legally binding measures were required, what threats (ASATs vs. weapons in space) were actually real and present dangers, and whether the Committee’s focus should be on substantive discussions or on developing a negotiating mandate. The Ad Hoc Committee’s work finished at the end of its session in 1994; it was not re-established in 1995 because some Member States wanted linkage between the continuation of the PAROS Committee and an Ad Hoc Committee on a Fissile Material Treaty. As such, neither Committee was re-established. Indeed, the linkage between PAROS and a Fissile Material Treaty was for many years the fundamental reason for the CD’s overall paralysis.
In the years following the Ad Hoc Committee’s demise, interest in PAROS at the CD was kept alive essentially by three Member States: Canada, the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation.  In January 1998, Canada proposed a new Ad Hoc Committee to negotiate the non-weaponization of outer space. In a February 2000 working paper, the People’s Republic of China proposed that the PAROS Ad Hoc Committee be revived with a mandate to negotiate a “new international legal instrument prohibiting the testing, deployment, and use of weapons, weapon systems and components in outer space.” In 2002, China and the Russian Federation put forward a working paper outlining possible elements of a future treaty to prevent the deployment of weapons in outer space; in 2008 the two states submitted a draft treaty – based on refinement of their initial proposal in response to comments and discussions over the intervening years – on the Prevention and Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT). Between 2006 and 2009, Canada submitted four working papers on various PAROS related issues, including verification of a treaty and transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs).
In 2009, with the adoption of resolution CD/1864, the long stalemate at the CD regarding its programme of work was broken – in part due to a compromise that de-linked negotiations on PAROS and Fissile Material; instead providing a negotiating mandate on the latter and a discussion mandate for the latter. On PAROS the programme of work would have created a working group to “discuss substantively, without limitation, all issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space.” Sadly, the agreement collapsed almost as soon as it was printed. PAROS, however, remains one of the “core” agenda items for the CD and an eventual programme of work.
As the CD continues its efforts to reach agreement on its future activities, Member States should be aware of several other ongoing efforts regarding space security that could impact future PAROS discussions:-
In 2010, the General Assembly established, under A/RES/65/68, a UN Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures for Outer Space Activities (GGE) to meet in 2012 and 2013. It should be remembered that a similar GGE -- on the “Study and on the application of confidence building measures in outer space” (A/48/305) – resulted in a study that was the subject of positive follow-up consideration by the CD’s Ad Hoc Committee in 1994. If the current GGE is able to reach agreement on a report in 2013, the CD potentially could again be in a position to take such work forward – although there continues to be some disagreement within the Conference between those Member States who see TCBMs as worth pursuit in and of themselves and those who see value in TCBMs only if they are linked to pursuit of a legally binding treaty.
The second on-going effort of note is the European Union’s initiative to develop an international code of conduct for space activities, which is essentially a macro-level norm setting approach. On 5 June 2012, the EU presented its latest draft text at an experts meeting in Vienna and will be launching a political process to refine the text and broaden support. The current draft text covers both military and non-military uses of space, and some TCBM-type elements that again would require consideration in any future PAROS discussions or negotiations within the CD.
Finally, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in Vienna is working to develop best-practice guidelines for space activities in order to promote the “long-term sustainability” of space. This is a largely technical undertaking and the Committee has no mandate to discuss military space operations. However, many of the foundational issues that are being discussed, such as exchange of data on orbital objects and notification of planned maneuvers, are also foundational aspects of any future TCBM or treaty regime.  This work is set to conclude with a proposed list of voluntary best practices in 2014.
Thus, there is a vast and growing body of work on PAROS and related issues that the CD could draw upon in future discussions or negotiations. This, in and of itself, is a source for optimism that if the CD begins work on PAROS, progress toward multilateral solutions could be forthcoming relatively rapidly.