Amid Commemoration of Landmark Treaty’s Fiftieth Anniversary, Joint Meeting of First, Fourth Committees Discusses Keeping Weapons Away from Outer Space

GA/SPD/640
12 October 2017
Seventy-second Session, 11th Meeting (AM)

Amid Commemoration of Landmark Treaty’s Fiftieth Anniversary, Joint Meeting of First, Fourth Committees Discusses Keeping Weapons Away from Outer Space

While the Outer Space Treaty was a landmark instrument, some of its undeveloped aspects remained within the legal regime in order to preserve security in space, a joint ad hoc meeting of the First (Disarmament and International Security) and Fourth Committees (Special Political and Decolonization) heard today.

China’s representative emphasized the need to focus on adherence to the existing legal regime and principles.  The Outer Space Treaty explicitly prohibited the placement of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, but did not touch upon other types of weapons, he pointed out.  Certain space‑based systems could be placed and used in time of war, and with the risk of weaponization representing the most fundamental threat to security in outer space, there was need for an instrument that would prevent an arms race in outer space and fill gaps in the existing legal regime.

The Russian Federation’s representative said his country and China had drafted a treaty aimed at preventing the placement of weapons in space, but some States had been obstructive.  As long as important space Powers remained outside efforts to develop a new legal regime for outer space, the advisability of continuing such efforts under United Nations auspices was questionable, he said.

However, the representative of the United States said that the delegation of the Russian Federation had joined his own in introducing a draft resolution on transparency and confidence‑building measures.  Other proposals made within the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space were designed to add greater transparency to space activities, he added, calling upon all States to embrace them as well.

Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, said that transparency and confidence‑building measures in space security could constitute a first step in the progressive development of international space law.  Such measures could help to reduce mishaps, misinterpretations and miscalculations, she added, noting that they could also create greater predictability and gather consensus on critical matters.

Thomas Markram, Deputy High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, acknowledged that some aspects of the legal regime remained largely undeveloped, including the lack of a common understanding on applying the right of self‑defence in accordance with international law while avoiding severe long‑lasting consequences.  He observed that the Treaty was not designed to comprehensively resolve all possible challenges to outer space security, adding that concerns about the weaponization of space had been left for future deliberations.

Many delegates pointed out that space was a shared common good, emphasizing that all States were entitled to its benefits, with Yemen’s representative underlining, on behalf of the Arab Group, that the organization and regulation of space activities must take the interests of all countries into account.  There could be no weapons in outer space, and there was need for a binding international regime to that effect.

Also speaking today were representatives of France, Canada, Venezuela, Australia, Indonesia (on behalf of the Non‑Aligned Movement), Pakistan, Cuba, Algeria, Chile, Switzerland, Argentina and India, as well as the European Union delegation.

The following panellists addressed the joint meeting:  Charity Wheeden of the Satellite Industry Association; Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists; Daniela Genta of Airbus; and Jessica West of Project Ploughshares.

The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 13 October, to continue its general debate on international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space.

Background

The First (Disarmament and International Security) and Fourth (Special Political and Decolonization) Committees of the General Assembly convened this afternoon for a joint ad hoc meeting on international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space, including possible challenges to space security and sustainability.

Opening Remarks

MOHAMMED HUSSEIN BAHR ALULOOM (Iraq), Chair of the First Committee and Co‑Chair of today’s joint meeting, said that the question of how best to preserve outer space for peaceful purposes had been considered by both the First and Fourth Committees over the years.  As such, the joint meeting would provide a forum for members of both Committees to consider the issue together.  Its overarching theme would be the fiftieth anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, taking its past, present and future into account.

THOMAS MARKRAM, Deputy High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, highlighted the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary since the entry into force of the Outer Space Treaty, describing it as a landmark instrument codifying the foundation of outer space law and establishing the shared objective of maintaining space as a realm of peace.  However, the Treaty had not aimed to comprehensively resolve all possible challenges to outer space security, he emphasized, adding that concerns about the weaponization of outer space had been left for future deliberations.

He said that preventing any conflict from extending into outer space remained an urgent imperative, even as growing military dependence on outer space increased in strategic significance and exposed the inherent vulnerability of space‑based assets.  Yet, some aspects of the legal regime in that realm remained largely undeveloped, he said, noting the lack of a common understanding on how the right of self-defence could be applied in conformity with international law without resulting in severe and long-lasting consequences.

The Secretary‑General had issued a report in April describing the Organization’s space activities, he said.  It identified gaps and recommended ways in which United Nations entities could further assist in the implementation of transparency and confidence‑building measures.  Furthermore, China and the Russian Federation had proposed the establishment of a new expert group intended to further the elaboration of legally binding measures to prevent an arms race in outer space.  If approved by the General Assembly, the work of that group could help to narrow differences over how the legal regime governing outer space could be further codified and developed, pending the end of the stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament, he said.

SIMONETTA DI PIPPO, Director, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, said today’s panel discussion provided an innovative format in which to follow up on the 2015 joint ad hoc meeting on international cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space.  The role of the Outer Space Treaty was paramount in maintaining international cooperation and understanding because it provided the fundamental principles for upholding legal order in such activities.  Considering the broader perspective of space security as a fundamental pillar for meeting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, she noted that transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space could held to reduce mishaps, misinterpretations and miscalculations.  They could also create greater predictability and gather consensus on matters crucial to maintaining outer space for peaceful purposes, thereby constituting a first step in the progressive development of international space law.

She went on to note that, within the framework of Earth protection, risks posed by such natural hazards as near‑Earth objects and space weather must also be considered.  In that regard, the Office for Outer Space Affairs worked with States, international organizations and other entities to strengthen resilience and the ability to rely on space systems to respond to the impact of such hazards, she said.  Concerning the maintenance of the United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space, she stressed that the Office stood ready to work with Member States in building appropriate and robust information exchange and notification procedures, building upon the long‑standing and treaty‑based Register and related principles.

Panel Discussion

RAFAEL DARÍO RAMÍREZ CARREÑO (Venezuela), Chair of the Fourth Committee and Co‑Chair of the joint meeting, introduced the following members of the panel: Charity Weeden, Satellite Industry Association; Laura Grego, Union of Concerned Scientists; Daniela Genta, Airbus; and Jessica West, Project Ploughshares.

Ms. WEEDEN, noting that the commercial satellite industry had been innovating over the past 50 years, said advances in camera technology had led to the production of higher quality images at a lower cost, and the provision of better information about the Earth.  The revolution in space technology permeated the global economy and way of life, she said, adding that the significant benefits of satellite technology facilitated advances in health, public safety and education.  Many satellites were commercially owned, and actions taken by the satellite industry ensured the sustainable use of space by all.  Several opportunities were available for commercial industry to work with Governments and non‑governmental organizations (NGOs), including through dialogue and partnerships, she said.

Ms. GREGO said there had been plans to interfere with satellites for as long as they had been in existence.  The impairment or loss of an important satellite could quickly escalate a conflict or generate other unpredictable and dangerous consequences.  The space environment had changed rapidly over the last decade or two, and rapid technological advances had increased the utility of space in sometimes unexpected ways.  Space was now home to tactical national security missions, not just strategic ones, she said, pointing out that space was nevertheless not insulated from conflict on Earth.  Efforts to “get a handle” on those risks had not led to any substantive constraints, she said.

Ms. GENTA emphasized the importance of ensuring the long‑term sustainability of space activities.  On governance issues, she said that although measures were in place, including “soft law” contained in General Assembly resolutions, none were binding.  However, space governance could potentially be enforced through national space law, she said.  Regarding responsibility and liability for, as well as jurisdiction over large constellations, she said space law may require a licensed operator to obtain third party liability insurance to ensure compensation of third parties injured by space objects under its control.  Meanwhile, international and national legal frameworks must encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, she said, pointing out that the influence of private actors over regulation and space law was increasing.  She expressed support for binding norms, the benefits of which would outweigh the risks.

Ms. WEST said access to outer space was flourishing.  Changes brought new challenges that were old in many ways, including environmental sustainability, new users and uses, and strategic instability.  The risk of warfare in outer space was growing more severe due to rising global geopolitical tensions, she noted, emphasizing that more must be done to reinforce the key values of the Outer Space Treaty.  Voicing concern that fragmentation of efforts could chip away at that instrument, she said efforts to address geopolitical tensions seemed intractable.  The Conference on Disarmament had been stalled for the last two decades and there were sharp divisions over the draft treaty on prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and of the threat or use of force against outer space objects.  However, the institutional focus on confidence‑building measures, and on advancing the Group of Governmental Experts on prevention of an arms race in outer space was promising, she said, calling for enhanced coordination at the United Nations and encouraging strategic restraint at the national level.

Statements

SUN LEI (China) said security challenges had emerged with recent developments in space technology, adding that the risk of weaponization represented the most fundamental threat to security in outer space.  Recalling that the panellists had made reference to governance, he emphasized the need to focus first on adherence to the existing legal regime and principles.  The Outer Space Treaty explicitly prohibited the placement of weapons of mass destruction in outer space and set out the means for maintaining the arena’s peaceful nature, he pointed out, emphasizing that its universal sanctity must be strengthened.  China also called for the negotiation of a legal instrument to prevent an arms race in outer space and fill the gaps in the existing legal regime.

He went on to point out that the Outer Space Treaty did not touch upon other types of weapons, and that certain space‑based systems could be placed and used in a time of war.  Alongside the Russian Federation, China had worked on a resolution on preventing the placement of weapons in outer space, he said, suggesting the creation of a group of governmental experts on that topic.  China also called for efforts to enhance transparency and confidence‑building measures in outer space, which could help to maintain peace and security in that realm.  However, such measures also had limitations, he cautioned, emphasizing that they should not overshadow negotiations on a legal instrument.

ALICE GUITTON (France) noted that space could not be reduced to “a simple ‘race’ of technologies and exploration”, because it represented a more open and strategic arena for everyone since many daily activities now depended on it.  Access to space was more democratic today, thanks to the development of lightweight satellites and launching cost decreases, she observed.  The granting of long‑lasting access to space had therefore become the relevant question at hand.  Calling for pragmatic action on the management of space traffic, she said France recognized the work of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Working Group on Long‑term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities.  Additionally, non‑legally binding transparency and confidence‑building measures that created a standard and common lexicon constituted a pragmatic means for taking up safety and sustainability challenges, she noted.  In the context of the rapid development and dissemination of adequate space technologies for defence, she called for refreshed thinking, cooperation and regulation in order to maximize the benefits that everyone could reap from space as a common good.

MARWAN ALI NOMAN AL-DOBHANY (Yemen), speaking on behalf of the Arab Group and associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, said it had become difficult to distinguish between security and civilian activity in outer space.  Space must remain beneficial for development and peaceful exploration, in keeping with international agreements and treaties.  The militarization of outer space was a matter of concern because it could lead to a new arms race, with serious threats to international peace and security.  Yemen called for all space activities to remain legal under the existing international regime, he emphasized.

He went on to underline that the organization and regulation of space activities must take the interests of all countries into account, pointing out that all States were entitled to its benefits.  There could be no weapons in outer space, and there was need for a binding international regime to that effect.  Emerging countries must also be involved so their special needs could be met, he said.  He noted that Dubai would host the High‑level Forum on Space as a Driver for Socioeconomic Sustainable Development, organized by the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, in November 2018.

DIDIER LENOIR, European Union delegation, said space activities and technologies were essential and could help greatly in reaching the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  In that regard, space applications were drivers of economic growth and innovation, contributing to the competitiveness of industry, to the creation of jobs and thus to reducing poverty.  They could also be instrumental in tackling major societal challenges and in preventing and managing conflict and crime.

He went on to emphasize the importance of developing and implementing transparency and confidence-building measures as a means to strengthen security and ensure sustainability in the peaceful use of outer space.  The European Union supported the elaboration of a legally binding instrument that would establish standards of responsible behaviour across the full range of space activities, he said.  Moreover, it supported the continuation of efforts to prevent an arms race in outer space and to develop a shared understanding of existing principles of global space governance as a measure to prevent conflict and promote international cooperation.

ROSEMARY MCCARNEY (Canada) said all space actors must conduct their activities within the existing space framework, calling in that vein upon Member States who had not yet done so to accede to the Outer Space Treaty, which  remained a solid basis for the international community’s work.  Voluntary measures also helped to create a climate of confidence.  Turning to the legal regime and global governance of outer space, she said the lack of consensus on a code of conduct should not hold the international community back where consensus had been reached.  Meanwhile, Canada was developing guidelines to address such issues as space debris, and providing guidance that would help to guide responsible behaviour by new space actors, she said.  Today’s joint meeting was a positive step in and of itself, she added.

WILMER ALFONZO MÉNDEZ GRATEROL (Venezuela) noted that humanity faced risks in outer space that could affect international peace and security, and called for negotiated measures and international agreements in that realm.  Some space activities were geared towards undermining United Nations principles, especially through the deployment of spy satellites that undermined State sovereignty, he said.  The initiative promoted by China and the Russian Federation would be very important in the negotiation of any treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space, he said, noting that cooperation with China had enabled Venezuela to place three satellites in orbit to promote economic development and other activities.

DARREN HANSEN (Australia), pointing out that his country’s Government had recently announced plans to establish a national space agency, went on to note that the Outer Space Treaty prohibited weapons of mass destruction but did not ban conventional weapons.  The international community should pursue transparency and confidence-building measures as an immediate priority, he said, expressing support for the proposal by the Russian Federation, China and the United States.  Recommendations for a legally binding instrument could be taken up by the Conference on Disarmament, he said.  Australia called for engaging private sector actors in space policy, especially on the critical issue of space debris.

ROBERT MATHEUS MICHAEL TENE (Indonesia), speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, emphasized the paramount importance of strict compliance with existing arms limitation and disarmament agreements relevant to outer space, including bilateral agreements, and with the existing legal regime concerning the use of outer space.  The Non-Aligned Movement remained concerned about developments related to anti-ballistic missile systems, as well as the threat of weaponization and militarization of outer space.  It, therefore, reiterated its call for the start of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament on a universal and legally binding instrument to prevent an arms race in outer space, he said.  Underlining the need for a universal, comprehensive and non-discriminatory multilateral approach to the question of missiles, he said any initiative on that subject should also consider the security concerns of all States and their inherent right to the peaceful use of space technologies.

Mr. AMIL (Pakistan) expressed concern about the security and stability of outer space, emphasizing that the international community must prevent it from becoming a new realm of conflict and preserve it exclusively for peaceful purposes.  The Government of Pakistan believed that transparency and confidence‑building measures were valuable, but they could not substitute for legally binding treaties, he said, adding that the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space had an important role to play for developing countries.  He condemned space debris and other factors threatening the safety of outer space, describing that realm as “humanity’s shared destiny”.

HUMBERTO RIVERO ROSARIO (Cuba) described the militarization of outer space as one of the greatest threats to the human species.  In that context, Cuba called upon the international community to ensure the prevention of an arms race in outer space.  The militarization of outer space must be prevented, he said, adding that a legal instrument was the only way to do that.  In that connection, Cuba called upon Member States to support the Russian Federation‑China proposal.  Noting that many objects were flying through space in the twenty‑first century, including spy objects, he stressed that outer space should not be a “pipe dream” that only certain countries could tap.

VASILY GUDNOV (Russian Federation) asked whether States had a common understanding of the problems at hand and of the decisions that must be taken.  Within the context of negotiations at the Outer Space Committee, the Russian Federation had proposed a number of regulatory functions to implement the recommendations of the Group of Governmental Experts in order to ensure the security of outer space activities.  However, the United States had taken a different approach, calling for implementation at the national level, rather than the Russian Federation’s idea that they should be applied as international norms.  It had, therefore, not been possible to resolve the difficulties encountered within the Outer Space Committee, he said.  Furthermore, during a meeting of the working group on the long-term sustainability of outer space activities the previous week, many delegations had demonstrated neither interest nor readiness to draft specific responsibilities, he added.

He went on to recall Ms. Genta’s statement to the effect that outer space treaties did not need amendment, and that national legislation was key.  Emphasizing that he did not understand that statement, he recalled that the last change in national legislation in some States had led to lack of understanding and could lead to further tension internationally in such areas as research and the use of space resources.  The Russian Federation and China had drafted a treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in space, but unfortunately, some States had been obstructive of it for political reasons, and had not made any proposals themselves, he said.  As long as some important space Powers did not try to develop a new regime for outer space, the advisability of continuing under United Nations auspices would be questionable.  Turning to self-defence in space, he noted that instruments on operational activities in outer space mentioned self-defence as a customary norm of international law.  The Russian Federation called upon the Outer Space Committee to consider hypothetical legal grounds for resorting to the right of self-defence in space so that hostile actions could be defined and a mutual understanding developed.

MUSTAPHA ABBANI (Algeria), associating himself with the Arab Group and the Non-Aligned Movement, said outer space played a significant economic and scientific role for many countries.  Algeria used its space programme to meet its development needs, and as a tool to support sustainable development and meet national needs across all sectors.  Space was the common heritage of humankind and must be preserved for peaceful uses, he said, calling for international cooperation in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty.  Militarization was also a matter of concern, given the risks of an arms race, he said, warning that it would have serious ramifications for international peace and security, as well as socioeconomic impacts.  All space activities should be regulated under the umbrella of the United Nations, he said, commending the China-Russian Federation initiative aimed at preventing an arms race in outer space.

RAIMUNDO GONZÁLEZ ANINAT (Chile) said accountability and liability for “these things flying around the Earth” were very important, cautioning that it was risky to depart from the liability system and take action at the national level.  Countries without satellites were being observed and the data acquired, he noted, expressing concern about information from Earth-observing satellites.  There had been customary approaches to observation from space since the first satellite launch and it was important to examine how any information gathered was handled under international law, he said.  Chile was disappointed that the Conference on Disarmament had not adopted any agenda for many years, he said, suggesting the creation of some sort of committee or structural link between that body and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.  Overall, there was a need for steps to ensure that confidence could be built concerning the question of observation from satellites in space, he said.

NATÁLIA ARCHINARD (Switzerland) said that international norms and the global governance of space activities should be reinforced in order to successfully address new challenges.  Commending the work of the Outer Space Committee, she noted that the development of voluntary guidelines was an important objective to be completed in 2018.  By proposing a chair for the new working group on that thematic priority, Switzerland had demonstrated its commitment to its work, she said.  Outer space must not become an area for military confrontation, she said, while suggesting that non-legally binding instruments could represent gradual steps towards legally binding ones.

GONZALO SEBASTIÁN MAZZEO (Argentina) said the limitations of the Outer Space Treaty included the fact that it did not prohibit conventional weapons in outer space, and made no mention of counter-satellites or anything of that nature.  Commending recent efforts on transparency and confidence-building measures, he said it was of paramount importance to abide by existing provisions, calling for clear terminology against placing weapons in outer space.  Current technology meant that private actors were increasingly involved in space, she said, adding that new measures must, therefore, be examined in the relevant forums.

KENNETH D. HODGKINS (United States) said the substantial progress made on the confidence-building measures within the Outer Space Committee was reflected in its report.  Noting that the Russian Federation had joined his delegation in introducing a resolution on transparency and confidence-building measures, he said the United States welcomed that initiative.  Other proposals in the Outer Space Committee were designed to add greater transparency to space activities, he said, calling upon all States to embrace them as well.  The United States looked forward to continuing such discussions and increasing the adherence of Member States to the Outer Space Treaty, as well as other instruments, such as the Registration Convention, the Agreement on the Rescue and Return of Space Objects and Astronauts, among others.  He urged all States to work diligently on the guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities, saying that completing them in 2018 would represent a monumental achievement in promoting international cooperation and confidence-building.

The representative of India called upon the international community to work cooperatively to enhance space security, citing the large number of existing threats to that realm emanating from different areas.  Given the number of different forums addressing that issue, it was important to develop norms and to strengthen the existing regime on outer space, he emphasized.  There was an opportunity now to come together to prevent a wasteful arms race in outer space through action in the First Committee, he said, adding that his country would welcome any possibility of a prevention instrument linking back to the Conference on Disarmament.

For information media. Not an official record.