First, Fourth Committees Jointly Consider Military Activities in Outer Space as Delegates Call for Legally Binding Way to Bridge Gaps in Existing Treaty

GA/DIS/3638
31 October 2019
Seventy-fourth Session, 20th Meeting (AM)

First, Fourth Committees Jointly Consider Military Activities in Outer Space as Delegates Call for Legally Binding Way to Bridge Gaps in Existing Treaty

Confidence-, Transparency-Building No Substitute, Say China, Russian Federation, Warning against Confusing Disarmament, Outer Space Agendas

Warning about the increasing weaponization of outer space, delegates called today for a legally binding instrument to make up for deficiencies in the existing treaty, during a joint ad hoc meeting of the First (Disarmament and International Security) and Fourth Committees (Special Political and Decolonization).

China’s representative said that her delegation and that of the Russian Federation have proposed a “treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space, the threat or use of force against outer space objects”.  Recalling that the Group of Governmental Experts recently advanced valuable suggestions but failed to adopt a report, she emphasized that appropriate measures for building transparency and confidence can complement binding legal instruments but not replace them.

The representative of the United States also cited the report of the Group of Governmental Experts, saying that the 21 Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities adopted by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space can also be considered as measures for building transparency and confidence.  Welcoming the Outer Space Committee’s adoption of the Guidelines, he described that action as an important milestone.

However, the Russian Federation’s representative said there have been suggestions that the Outer Space Treaty is outdated and no longer reflects the situation in space, particularly the number of participants, emphasizing that until recently, outer space activities were based on the norms and principles of international space law.  While acknowledging the link between the Outer Space Committee and the United Nations disarmament machinery, he underlined the unique role of each and warned against confusing their respective agendas.

The joint meeting also heard from Thomas Markram, Deputy High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, who said that in the absence of agreed norms, the expansion and significance of military activities in outer space may encourage more countries to use counter-space capabilities in protecting their own assets.  He went on to say United Nations entities can do more together to facilitate the implementation of agreed measures, including the creation of a platform for exchanging information and dialogue on military space policies, doctrines and programmes.

Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, called for organized reporting on the implementation of the Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities.  Structured exchanges of information on space objects and events, as well as other such actions, could encompass measures for building trust, confidence and stability, she said.

Also speaking today were representatives of the Philippines, United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland, Pakistan and Colombia.

An observer for the European Union also delivered a statement.

Participating in a panel discussion during the joint meeting were:  Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Distinguished Fellow with the Observer Researcher Foundation; Diane Howard, Chief Counsel for Space Commerce at the United States Department of Commerce; and Cynda Collins Arsenault, Co-founder and President of the Secure World Foundation.

Opening Remarks

SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia), Chair of the First Committee and Co‑Chair of today’s joint meeting, said the session will provide an integrated forum for members of both the First and Fourth Committees to consider the issue of preserving outer space exclusively for peaceful purposes.  It will consider the topic “Possible challenges to space security and sustainability”, focusing on identifying themes that intersect with both space sustainability and security, he said, adding that it will also take stock of the status of recent related United Nations processes.  Participants will also exchange views on international cooperation and coordination, particularly in terms of space science and technology and their applications, as well as the characteristics of expert processes, he said.  Another focus is identifying issues to which coordinated approaches could advance long-sought objectives for space sustainability and security.

THOMAS MARKRAM, Director and Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said the security and long-term sustainability of outer space face accelerating challenges, including the development of counter-space and dual-use capabilities.  In the absence of agreed norms, the expanding role and significance of military use of outer space may encourage more countries to use counter-space capabilities in protecting their own assets, he said, pointing out the risk that efforts within the United Nations will be insufficient to address those challenges.  He went on to report that although the Group of Governmental Experts on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space was unable to agree on a substantive final report, it made important progress in clarifying central concepts, narrowing differences and identifying future areas of work.

Despite the Disarmament Commission’s inability to convene its substantive session, informal consultations held in April resulted in useful exchanges and the discussion of new ideas, he noted.  During the recent high-level General Assembly segment, he recalled, delegations raised possible new areas that could be pursued in the future, including on measures to address the development and testing of anti-satellite weapons, guidelines on rendezvous and proximity operations and norms of responsible behaviour.  Each of those measures can be pursued through multiple pathways, he said.  There is also more that United Nations entities can do together to facilitate the implementation of agreed measures, including the creation of a platform for exchanging information and dialogue on military space policies, doctrines and programmes, he said.  Joint meetings play an important role in bringing all relevant parts of the space policy community together to share their respective experiences and ensure future coordination, he concluded.

SIMONETTA DI PIPPO, Director, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, noted that 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and the first humans landing on the surface of the moon.  Highlighting the approach of the Outer Space Office to capacity-building, she cited its Access to Space for All Initiative involving innovative triangular cooperation between established space actors, the United Nations and entities from non-space-faring nations.  She also pointed to its collaboration with China’s Manned Space Agency in flying experiments on board the China Space Station as an initiative aimed at opening space exploration to all nations.  Moreover, she said, the broader application and increased strategic value of space operations has resulted in a growing need to enhance the safety of space operations and the security of space assets and space systems.

She went on to note that the Office for Outer Space Affairs is mandated to maintain the central United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space, which functions as the core mechanism for building treaty-based transparency and confidence.  However, the registration regime faces challenges relating to the future deployment of large and mega-constellations, she said.  On promoting the safety of space operations, she called for enhancing capacity and awareness as well as increased dialogue with private space actors.  She also called for organized reporting on the implementation of the Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities advanced by the Outer Space Committee.  Structured information exchange on space objects and events, as well as other such actions, could encompass measures for building trust, confidence and stability, she said, also citing mechanisms to ensure the safety of space operations, including avoidance of in-orbit collisions, emergency situations, loss of control over spacecraft and re-entry risks.

Panel Discussion

The Chair then introduced the following panellists: Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Researcher Foundation; Diane Howard, Chief Counsel for Space Commerce, United States Department of Commerce; and Cynda Collins Arsenault, Co-founder and President, Secure World Foundation.

Ms. HOWARD said space entrepreneurship around the world will change the nature of space security and sustainability, noting that new and enhanced capabilities in areas like communications, navigation and remote sensing are designed to enhance life on Earth.  With the global space economy estimated at $400 billion, the future of space is projected to be overwhelmingly commercial, she predicted, emphasizing that the thinking about space must therefore shift from a traditional security mindset to one incorporating ideas about space safety and sustainability in a more collaborative environment.  Stressing that space safety and sustainability are key to economic growth, the protection of investments and the continuing provision of services and innovation on behalf of customers on Earth, she cited one industry-led effort — the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations, a group of stakeholders involved in articulating practices and developing standards for on-orbit servicing.  Successful execution of rendezvous and proximity operations is key to the paradigm shift in the burgeoning space economy, she said, pointing out that collaborations with the private sector can build on lessons learned on weather forecasting.  In collaborations through open architecture, meteorologists around the world can agree on common data formats, quality standards, algorithms and sensor characteristics, she said, adding that the United States Department of Commerce also sees opportunities for international collaboration on spaceflight safety.

Ms. RAJAGOPALAN said several States are using outer space for military applications, adding that intentional attacks using radio frequencies, laser-dazzling and cyberwarfare technologies are becoming more attractive options because they are accessible and affordable.  Even satellite inspection, refuelling and repair, or technology for cleaning up space junk can be used in a harmful manner, she cautioned, emphasizing that none of those trends support the interests of long-term sustainability of outer space activities.  She pointed out that the changing balance of power is affecting all major space players, who are assigning greater militaristic roles to their space assets, but that debates about global governance have not kept pace with changing technological developments.  Talks about not placing weapons of mass destruction in outer space have taken place, she acknowledged, while stressing the lack of understanding of such “nitty-gritty” issues as the definition of peaceful uses of outer space.  If one State relies on deterrence as a model, others will do so, making cooperation extremely difficult, she noted, stressing the importance of preventing the deterrence model before States go down that path.  She called for escalatory thresholds to be made public so that States are aware of lines they must not cross, and for the elaboration of legally binding mechanisms and initiatives to strengthen confidence and trust.

Ms. COLLINS ARSENAULT said women add unique value to multilateral and international discussions, noting that when women are present during negotiations, the talks are more likely to be successful.  Treaties are 35 per cent more likely to last 15 years, she noted, declaring: “Women moderate extremism.”  A global poll conducted by Our Secure Future with women from 63 countries found that women look at security differently, focusing on inclusive, bottom-up approaches and encouraging good governance.  She said that with space security discussions at an impasse, new perspectives and varied skill sets are needed to solve complex problems.  However, the First Committee has had only one female Chair in 72 sessions, and the Outer Space Committee had its first woman Chair in 2018 after 59 years, she pointed out.  “At any intergovernmental meeting on disarmament, only one quarter of the participants are likely to be women, and close to half of all delegations have no women at all,” she noted.

The representative of the Philippines warned that the sustainability of outer space is threatened by a potential arms race, emphasizing that stronger global governance over outer space activities would help sustainable development efforts.  Assisting developing countries with space programmes should be a priority for the Space 2030 Agenda, he added.  Citing the absence of agreed norms, he called upon space-faring nations to respect current instruments governing space activities and encouraged Member States to move forward on a multilateral instrument that would prevent the militarization of outer space while promoting transparency and building confidence.

The representative of the United Kingdom spoke on behalf of a group of like-minded States, emphasizing that everyone must take responsibility for keeping space a stable, safe and sustainable environment.  There is a common interest in maintaining peace and security in space, although there are different views on how to achieve that, he noted.  As space activity increases, effective implementation of existing international law — in particular the Charter of the United Nations and the Outer Space Treaty — will be more and more important.  Citing several issues that must be addressed, he stressed the need to reduce the risk of mistrust and misunderstanding resulting from launches that are not de-conflicted or properly notified.  Governments, space agencies, commercial space actors and others must coordinate and share information on space debris, he continued, adding that States must also refrain from creating long-lived space debris, such as direct ascent anti-satellite tests or kinetic attacks by space objects.  With objects in space ever-closer to each other, confidence-building measures and open lines of communication must be put in place to prevent miscalculations that could lead to a perceived threat.  Overall, an incremental approach that looks for solutions to practical problems and establishes norms of behaviour for both private and governmental space operators is the best way to address threats, he said, adding that such norms could form the basis for considering a legally binding instrument to prevent an arms race in outer space.

The representative of Mexico, noting that there is a general understanding that current standards are insufficient to guarantee that outer space is only used for peaceful purposes, asked the panellists whether the gap in standards should be filled from the standpoint of peace or security.  In other words, should it be addressed through disarmament discussions in Geneva or a political decision in New York?

The representative of Brazil underlined the vital role of outer space activities in the economic and scientific fields, expressing regret that space is becoming increasingly congested and contested.  The weaponization of that realm could irreversibly damage humanity’s ability to use it for peaceful purposes, he warned, emphasizing that existing treaties are no longer enough to keep outer space safe and secure by reducing vulnerabilities to perceived threats and actual risks.  Recent discussions on preventing an arms race in outer space considered critical issues such as the scope and limits of the existing legal regime in outer space, confidence-building measures and international cooperation, among others, he recalled, stressing that joint studies are needed on technological solutions for monitoring outer space debris, standardizing launch rules, establishing a communication channel among satellite control centres and elaborating legal standards to compel space-faring-nations to mitigate debris.

An observer for the European Union emphasized that outer space is a global common good, to be used for the benefit of all and requiring transparency and responsible behaviour within the realm.  Citing the new European Union Space Programme’s measures for disposing of space debris as an example of “taking charge of our own actions in this global challenge,” she stressed the need to strengthen commitments on avoiding potentially harmful interference with the peaceful exploration and use of outer space while facilitating equitable access.  The European Union remains strongly committed to the prevention of an arms race in outer space, she reiterated, while expressing concern over the continuing development of anti-satellite weapons.  Calling upon all States to refrain from destroying space objects that would generate long-lived debris, she said that discussions on a voluntary instrument or norms to govern human activities in space should complement the Outer Space Committee’s Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities.

The representative of the United States emphasized that all actors must take responsibility for maintaining space as a stable and orderly environment.  As such, the United States welcomes the Outer Space Committee’s adoption of the Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities, he said, describing them as an important milestone.  He said international cooperation can be achieved without stifling innovation in outer space, citing the report of the Group of Governmental Experts to the effect that the Guidelines can also be considered measures for building transparency and confidence.  Acknowledging the increasing risks arising from the congestion in outer space, he called for enhanced exchange of information to reduce operational risks, facilitate mutual understanding of intent and avoid risks arising from miscommunications.  All space-faring nations should engage actively in the Outer Space Committee and its subcommittees, he added.  The United States has co-sponsored a draft resolution on the issue, to be considered by the First Committee, he said, calling for national inputs and asking the Secretariat to submit a report on coordinating transparency- and confidence-building measures.

The representative of China, noting the challenges that the increase in space debris poses to outer space security and stability, said that an arms race as well as the weaponization of outer space are also on the rise.  A new legal instrument is needed to make up for current deficiencies, she said, adding that China and the Russian Federation have proposed a “treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space, the threat or use of force against outer space objects”.  Noting that the Group of Governmental Experts advanced valuable suggestions but failed to adopt a report, she emphasized that appropriate transparency- and confidence-building measures can complement binding legal instruments but not replace them.  China has published four White Papers on its space activities, she said, adding that the Government registers information on objects launched into outer space and announces the launches while coordinating with relevant international organizations.  The country also participates in measures to mitigate space debris through the United Nations, she said, noting that total space debris from China has grown at a rate of nearly zero.  China is committed to international cooperation in space, having signed 130 agreements with more than 40 countries and provided satellite-launch services to 10.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that until recently, outer space activities were based on the norms and principles of international space law.  However, it has recently been suggested that the Outer Space Treaty is outdated and no longer reflects the situation in space, particularly the number of participants, he added.  Noting that Western countries are actively promoting the concept of competition in space — while simultaneously suggesting that competition will lead to a crisis in which violence will be required — he said those countries are increasingly populating the atmosphere around the Earth.  What, specifically, do those countries not like in the Outer Space Treaty?  The notion that space vehicles can be used as weapons to attack satellites or ground-based targets contravenes international agreements stipulating that State participants in space must avoid activities that would impede the activities of others, he pointed out.  Such thinking would mean that any space object in orbit can be considered a weapon, including those launched by commercial entities or for research purposes, and could be a threat to national security, he noted.  While acknowledging the link between the Outer Space Committee and the United Nations disarmament machinery, he underlined the unique role of each and warned against confusing their respective agendas.  The Russian Federation opposes the introduction of space questions into the disarmament platform since they have undergone effective examination by the Outer Space Committee, he affirmed.

The representative of Argentina, noting the increase in the number of private actors in space, said non-space-faring States also benefit from the peaceful uses of outer space.  While new aspects of outer space exploration must be addressed, the discussions should happen in the various platforms established to address outer space issues, with a clear distinction between security and peaceful development, she said.

The representative of Switzerland said it is clear that rendezvous and other space activities can enhance space sustainability by making satellites more durable and lowering the risks posed by space debris.  On the other hand, such activities can also be used in hostile ways, with security implications.  As such, the Outer Space Committee and its new working group represents the correct setting in which to address the safety and sustainability of rendezvous options, she observed.

Ms. RAJAGOPALAN called for pursuit of transparency- and confidence-building measures to build greater trust among players in outer space, thereby leading to a legally binding and verifiable instrument.  Noting that those options are not mutually exclusive, she said States understand the issues, but non-space political factors have intruded.  All tracks must therefore be pursued simultaneously in order to establish greater trust through multiple dialogue processes within the Outer Space Committee, she emphasized.  On verification, she said the dual-use nature of outer space has made the debate more challenging.  Noting that any object launched into outer space can be used in different ways — including peaceful or nefarious ways, using the same technology — she said States must move beyond rhetoric and deliver in terms of transparency- and confidence-building measures while working towards legally binding measures.  She went on to agree with the representative of China, while also highlighting the importance of observing the international political climate, which has not been conducive to legally binding measures.  Transparency- and confidence-building measures represent a good intermediate step towards building greater political trust, she said, emphasizing that the Outer Space Treaty remains the foundational agreement in that realm.  However, that instrument entered into force during a very different time, when the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction in outer space was a bigger issue, she added, pointing out that the Treaty did not foresee the threats witnessed today.  As such, additional measures are required now, but they are not intended to replace the Outer Space Treaty, she stressed.

Ms. HOWARD, noting that the Government of the United States relies on inter-agency efforts, said that when such entities communicate, their individual identities are not lost.

Ms. COLLINS ARSENAULT said risks can be reduced by broadening the conversation, adding that industry, civil society and amateur astronomers all have opinions and can offer new ideas on outer space security and stability.  As space assets increase, interdependence is built, bringing greater security, she noted.  Describing the Outer Space Treaty as inspirational, she nevertheless pointed out that the world was very different in 1967, and it is therefore important to look at what is missing and move forward accordingly.

The representative of Pakistan said that although the Outer Space Treaty was a landmark instrument, gaps were quickly observed within it, noting that discussions to address them have been going on since the 1970s without much progress.  The current legal framework is not sufficient, he observed, emphasizing that transparency- and confidence-building measures cannot replace a legally binding instrument.  Such an instrument would need to be considered by all the relevant platforms, he added.

The representative of Colombia, expressing concern about space debris, asteroids and the placement of weapons in space, said the Outer Space Committee plays a key role in building transparency and confidence between States, and encouraged the United Nations to continue to adopt voluntary steps such as transparency- and confidence-building measures while promoting safe and responsible conduct in outer space.

Ms. RAJAGOPALAN called for greater appreciation of changes in the current environment, reiterating that space is a global common in which the activities of one State affects others.  Thus, there is a collective responsibility in relation to issues like space debris, she said, emphasizing that although such questions are usually debated within the Outer Space Committee, they should also be addressed within different platforms.

Ms. COLLINS ARSENAULT said new space technology can be win-win or lose-lose, adding that space advances are important for economic opportunity and general knowledge.  She went on to emphasize the importance of gender balance in space considerations.

For information media. Not an official record.