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New Draft of Space Code Released
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Timothy Farnsworth

The European Union circulated a new draft of its proposed international code of conduct for outer space activities at its first international meeting of governmental experts June 5 in Vienna.

The code, which would not be legally binding, would establish guidelines for behavior in space that would limit the creation of space debris and increase transparency and other elements of international cooperation in order to reduce the risk of collisions in space, creating a “peaceful, safe, and secure outer space environment.” (See ACT, January/February 2009.)

More than 110 participants from more than 40 countries, including Brazil, China, India, Russia, and the United States, took part in the plenary meeting to outline key elements of the new draft text, according to a June 6 press release from the EU’s European External Action Service and other sources. Earlier this year, the United States announced it would join the negotiations but not sign on to the previous draft of the code. (See ACT, March 2012.)

EU and U.S. officials said the June meeting was not a negotiating session but a “kickoff” to present a new draft of the code to a larger number of countries than in previous discussions. The meeting in Vienna outlined key elements of the new draft and will be the basis for future discussions, a senior official from the U.S. Department of State said in a June 11 interview. Concerns about space debris have increased in the wake of China’s 2007 use of a ballistic missile to destroy one of its satellites.

In a June 14 interview, an EU official familiar with the meeting said the new draft of the code tried to answer some of the questions asked in a number of consultations between the EU and other major spacefaring countries while keeping the philosophy of the original 2008 draft on avoiding collisions and conflicts in space.

Although the document retains much of the language from an October 2010 draft, one major addition to the text is an explicit statement that the code is not legally binding, a key point emphasized by U.S. officials supportive of the code in the face of criticism. (See ACT, March 2012.)

At a March 21 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) voiced his concern that the code has “treaty-type implications” and would “bind us and maybe make it impossible for us to effectively maintain our space and missile defense capability that we need because we need to be able to dominate space.”

At the hearing, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon responded to Sessions by saying that “one of the fundamental tenets of this discussion of the code of conduct would be the inherent right of self-defense.” Earlier in her testimony, Creedon said that “[u]ltimately, [the code] serves our interests much better than legally binding agreements, and it will not ban space weapons or any of the other capabilities that we have proposed.”

The next EU international experts meeting to discuss the code is expected to take place in October in New York and will be open to all UN member states “with the view to adopt the Code in 2013,” according to the EU press release. The EU official said that the October meeting originally was supposed to last three to four days, with representatives discussing the code paragraph by paragraph. Yet, the Vienna meeting was the first time many of the representatives had seen the new draft, according to the official. The most important outcome of the upcoming meeting would be “that we all agree that this [draft code] is the basis for future negotiations and discussions,” he said.

Looking past the planned October meeting, the EU official said that the process could continue past the 2013 timeline. “In terms of substance, we are not far from agreement on a good number of items and could have a final text by the beginning of 2013,” the official said. “However, the difficult part might be on process. By mid-2013, how many countries will be ready to go with the initiative?” the official continued. “We need a large amount of spacefaring nations onboard.”

The code process appears to be gaining a higher international profile. At a June 5 meeting of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), Russia stated its support of the EU initiative, the first time Moscow had done so in that forum. “In general, we appreciate positively the draft Code of Conduct in Space proposed by the EU and are ready to participate in its finalization on a multilateral basis,” the Russian representative said.

In a first for the Group of Eight industrialized countries, the group’s foreign ministers addressed the issues of “space security and sustainability” in a statement issued at their April 11-12 meeting. The statement “acknowledge[d]” the EU initiative to develop the code.

Russia and China previously have focused their efforts on the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, a space arms control treaty, which they submitted to the CD in February 2008.

Laura Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to the CD, said June 5 that the United States “is willing to consider space arms control proposals and concepts that are equitable [and] effectively verifiable and enhance the national security of the United States, partners, and allies. However, we have not yet seen a proposal that meets these criteria.”

In the June 11 interview, the U.S. official said the United States is taking a “comprehensive” approach to space security and stability. In addition to being involved in the talks on the proposed EU code, Washington is participating in the discussions by a UN group of governmental experts on transparency and confidence-building measures, which are set to begin July 23. The aim of the space experts group is to develop a catalogue of voluntary unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures for space, the official said.

The official also cited U.S. participation in discussions at the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. That committee, which met June 6-15, was established by the UN General Assembly in 1959 to review international cooperation on peaceful uses of space, conceive of programs to be undertaken by the United Nations, encourage research and spread information on space matters, and study legal problems that may arise from the exploration of space.

Posted: July 5, 2012