The United Nations Security Council takes up Space Security – it might have been best if it had not

As the international community’s dependence on space-enabled services grows exponentially, the disconnect between space powers on rules for responsible behaviour in outer space can only be a matter of great concern.

By: /
17 June, 2024
A Falcon 9 rocket carrying 23 Starlink Low-Earth Orbit internet satellites launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, March 10, 2024. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Space Force photo by Joshua Conti
Paul Meyer
By: Paul Meyer
Adjunct professor of international studies, Simon Fraser University

It may come as a surprise that until this April the United Nations (UN) Security Council had never taken up the issue of outer space security despite the Council’s primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Outer space has become an increasingly important environment for global well-being with a wide array of space-based services underpinning many critical civilian activities from telecommunications to navigation to remote sensing of the Earth. The world is also experiencing an exponential growth in the numbers of satellites in orbit driven primarily by the private sector and the launch by companies such as “Starlink” and “One Web” of “mega-constellations” to ensure global Internet connectivity. Many stakeholders in the use of outer space also recognize that preserving this environment for peaceful purposes, in line with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, means ensuring that it is kept free of man-made threats. 

Regrettably, just as global society is discovering ever more benefits from outer space activity, leading space powers are characterizing it as a “war-fighting domain” while accusing one another of having been the first to “weaponize” this vital if vulnerable environment. The ethos of cooperation imbued in the Outer Space Treaty with its stress on space activity being “in the interests and for the benefit of all countries”; its insistence on each party paying “due regard” to the rights of others and its prohibition on the stationing of nuclear weapons or other WMD in orbit, is currently under severe strain. Hostile rhetoric, accusations of nefarious intent, development of anti-satellite weapons and other so-called “counter-space capabilities” plus the abuse of consensus-based diplomatic processes have generated an atmosphere that is not conducive for states agreeing on cooperative security measures even when these are urgently needed. 

To the degree that space security has been addressed by the UN in the past it has been a preserve of the General Assembly and the 65-member Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, both of which have had the “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space” (PAROS) item on their agenda since the early 1980s. Each year the General Assembly adopts (normally without a vote) a PAROS resolution that asserts that the existing legal regime for outer space (the Outer Space Treaty) is not sufficient to prevent a space arms race and that “further measures” are required to “consolidate and reinforce” that regime. However, beyond this regular, ritualized expression of declaratory policy precious little has actually been done by states to fulfill the resolution’s direction to negotiate “further measures”. 

Part of the problem has been that since it last negotiated an agreement in 1996 the Conference on Disarmament has been a largely moribund body, unable to agree and implement a basic programme of work let alone negotiate anything. This dysfunctionality is sustained by its consensus-based decision making that essentially gives each of its members a de facto veto over any decision. As security perspectives and threat perceptions differ amongst the member states no common ground has emerged for any new agreement. Specifically, on the PAROS item an East-West divide has existed for decades over how best to proceed. 

In 2008, Russia and China put forward a draft treaty on “The Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or use of Force against Space Objects” (better known by its acronym PPWT). In the view of its sponsors it is essential that a legally binding agreement is concluded that will ban all weapons in space. The United States (US) and its allies have raised objections to the Sino-Russian treaty citing problems with its definitions, its lack of verification provisions and it not taking into account the threat posed by terrestrial based anti-satellite weapons. More generally, Western states have argued against attempting legally-binding agreements at this stage, suggesting that politically binding steps such as transparency and confidence building measures represent the most practical form of action for international cooperation. Russia and China have rebutted these objections and have called for the collective development of the draft treaty, while still insisting that any negotiation be carried out in the Conference on Disarmament despite its paralysis. 

This gap in positions could be bridged with a modicum of good will and a willingness to compromise on preferred positions, but neither quality is much in evidence these days. Instead, a decision was made to transfer the unresolved debate over PAROS to the Security Council which had never addressed the issue before. The proximate motivation for doing so lies with the publication of an allegation by the United States that Russia was developing a spacecraft armed with a nuclear weapon. To deploy a nuclear weapon in orbit would be a blatant violation of the Outer Space Treaty and Moscow has adamantly denied that it is planning to do this. 

The US and Japan, along with numerous co-sponsors, introduced this April a draft resolution on Outer Space and WMD with a principal call for all states to adhere to the ban on placing WMD into space. At the April 24 Security Council meeting slated to consider this issue, Russia offered up an amendment to the US/Japan resolution. The amendment stipulated that states “take urgent measures to prevent for all time the placement of weapons in outer space and the threat or use of force in outer space, from space against Earth and from Earth against objects in outer space”; and called for “the early elaboration of appropriate reliably verifiable legally binding multilateral agreements” (i.e. like the PPWT). The amendment failed having received only 7 positive votes whereas 9 are required in the Security Council. 

This set the stage for a vote on the US/Japan resolution which garnered 13 positive votes, one abstention (China) and fatally a veto from Russia. In an effort to turn the tables on the US, Russia introduced a new resolution of its own which incorporated much of the text from the US/Japan resolution, but reinserted the language of its amendment. When this resolution went to a vote at a May 20th Security Council session it failed (like the amendment) to garner sufficient support with a repetition of the earlier split 7-7 vote. The Russian representative justified its veto of the original US/Japan resolution on the grounds that it lacked any “added value” (given the existing treaty commitments not to deploy nuclear weapons in orbit) and that it was motivated by a desire “to depict Russia in an unfavourable light”.  Why, he asked, would states not embrace an extension of the prohibition on WMD to cover all weapons as stipulated in the PPWT that was still “on the negotiating table in the Conference on Disarmament”? The US and UK representatives accused Russia of trying to distract attention from its development of a nuclear space weapon and for attempting surreptitiously to seek support for its position on the scope of an eventual agreement (covering all weapons) which had already failed to garner consensus support in the other UN forums where it had been considered. 

The Canadian Ambassador Bob Rae, at a May 6 session of the General Assembly convened to discuss the use of the veto by Russia, was scathing in his criticism of Moscow. “We convene today, he said, “because the Russian Federation has yet again cynically abused its veto power at the Security Council”. Noting that the resolution was aimed at preventing a nuclear arms race in space, Rae  stated “Is it any surprise that Russia, which holds the UN Charter in such contempt here on earth, would object to its application in outer space?” Ambassador Rae went on to critique the Sino-Russian treaty for its lack of a “scope of application, definitions and a verification method” and impugned the motives of Moscow and Beijing. “Add to this Russia’s veto and China’s abstention,” he continued, “and it becomes clear that these two countries are not interested in genuine disarmament in space”.

While it may have made for some good diplomatic theatre the skirmishes witnessed on April 24 and May 20 in the Security Council have not yielded any progress on the substance. The US effort to embarrass Russia over the alleged development of a nuclear weapon carrying spacecraft and Russia’s effort to embarrass the US (and its allies) over its rejection of extending the existing ban on WMD in space to all types of weapons have basically cancelled each other out. Instead of providing any positive momentum to advancing work on space security, the international community was left with the unedifying spectacle of adversaries sniping at one another while repeating known positions without any attempt to bridge the gaps. 

Of course, the West can well critique the Sino-Russian treaty for its shortcomings, but 16 years later what has it put on the negotiating table as an alternative to this agreement? If it had been willing to engage with the sponsors of the draft, perhaps acceptable alternative formulations of the treaty text could have been developed – it’s a process called negotiation. It is also easy to cite problems of definitions without offering any of your own or acknowledging that at times the absence of a definition is not crucial for a treaty’s success (consider the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which is a cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime and which nowhere defines a “nuclear weapon”). 

If verification is rightly considered essential why not develop  a suitable verification regime rather than simply decrying its absence in the original proposal. There was a time when Canada was a leader in researching possible verification solutions to arms control problems (recall the PAXSAT project of the mid-1980s which concluded that verification by satellite of a space arms control agreement was feasible); perhaps it would be more constructive to re-invest in such capabilities again. If this group effort can be undertaken for the verification of nuclear disarmament (consider the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification) surely it can be done for space arms control, especially in light of the improved monitoring capabilities extant in both the private and public sectors.

More promising than the combative machinations in the Security Council has been the creative approach shown in the recent UN Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on “Reducing Space Threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours”. This group convened for a few weeks in 2022 and 2023 with a final session in the week of August 28 to September 1. Due to disruptive and frankly spiteful behaviour by the Russian delegation no concluding report could be achieved (the group operating by consensus) and even the usual anodyne procedural report was blocked by the Russian representative who openly delighted in the group’s failure. 

Despite this egregious conduct the OEWG benefited from the active participation of those present and the rich menu of proposals that were presented, any one of which, if adopted, would make a positive contribution to the security situation in outer space. Given the denial of agreement for a report, the group’s Chairman (Hellmut Lagos of Chile) issued a Chairperson’s summary on his own authority which captured the nature of the discussions and notably enumerated the many practical proposals which had been put forward during the OEWG’s proceedings. 

Notable among these proposals were restraint measures on any destructive action against satellites and refraining from “any other non-consensual act that destroys or damages the space objects of other States”; refraining from “any deliberate act that interferes with the normal and safe operation of the space objects under the jurisdiction or control of other States”; refraining from “any acts that would impair the provision of critical space-based services to civilians” and ensuring “that satellites under their jurisdiction and control or operating on their behalf do not rendezvous, physically connect or physically damage with satellites under the jurisdiction and control of another State, or operate in proximity to, without prior consultations and consent”. Agreement on such conflict prevention measures is the type of action which would really benefit the international community.

In lieu of further polemics between Russia, China and the US it would be helpful if concerned middle powers, such as Canada, and non-governmental stakeholders spoke out on the need to take up some of these specific proposals and seek agreement on them. Let’s put aside the tired and sterile debates over the desired scope and status for space arms control and embark on a purposeful effort to develop cooperative security measures for outer space.  The international community deserves no less. 

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