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June 2, 2022
EU Issues Space Code of Conduct
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Jeff Abramson

In December, the European Union issued a draft code of conduct for outer space activities that skirted many thorny issues that have plagued prior international efforts to prevent an arms race in outer space. Designed to encompass civilian and military uses of space, key features of the text include a voluntary commitment to refrain from intentionally harming space objects, measures to control and mitigate space debris, and mechanisms for cooperation and consultation. The EU is now expected to hold consultations to revise the text so that it is acceptable to more countries.

Concerns about an arms race in outer space and harm to orbiting satellites have grown in recent years. In February 2008, the United States, citing safety concerns, destroyed an ailing satellite before it deorbited using a modified interceptor designed to counter short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The action was interpreted by some as a demonstration of U.S. anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. (See ACT, March 2008.) In January 2007, China tested an ASAT system, destroying one of its own satellites and creating significant space debris. (See ACT, March 2007.)

Making progress on space issues was a goal of Nicolas Sarkozy during France's presidency of the EU, which ended with the close of 2008. Paris hosts the headquarters of the European Space Agency, and the French space agency CNES owns a major share in Arienspace, a leader in commercial space launch services.

In issuing the draft code, the EU specifically pointed to a 2006 UN General Assembly resolution asking states for concrete proposals for "outer space transparency and confidence-building measures."

The code encompasses civilian, commercial, and military activities, seeking to "enhance the safety, security and predictability of outer space activities" and "prevent outer space from becoming an area of conflict."

It calls for states subscribing voluntarily to "minimize the possibility of accidents in space...or any form of harmful interference" and to "refrain from any action which will or might bring about, directly or indirectly, the damage or destruction of outer space objects."

It contains an important proviso, allowing for destruction of space objects to "reduce the creation of space debris and/or justified by imperative safety considerations," an apparent reference to the February 2008 U.S. destruction of an ailing satellite due to claimed terrestrial safety concerns. (See ACT, March 2008.)

The code also includes commitments to provide notifications "in a timely manner" of maneuvers, orbital changes, and malfunctions that might place space objects at risk, including any accidents or collisions that have taken place. It would establish annual information sharing, a consultation mechanism, biennial meetings of subscribing states, and a database of key contacts and activities in order to create cooperative mechanisms and an organizational infrastructure to support them.

Recent efforts to develop codes of conduct have generally been less controversial than treaty-based approaches to limit the placement of weapons in space.

China and Russia jointly submitted to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in February 2008 a draft "Treaty on the Prevention of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat of Force Against Outer Space Objects" (PPWT). Under the proposed accord, states would commit not to place in orbit "any objects carrying any kind of weapons." Such a prohibition goes further than the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forbids placing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space.

The Chinese-Russian draft treaty also would obligate its members "not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects."

In an Aug. 19, 2008, letter to the CD, U.S. Ambassador Christina Rocca rejected the PPWT, reiterating U.S. opposition to "prohibitions on military or intelligences uses of space." She raised concerns about the lack of clarity in defining what constitutes a threat and the ease of breaking out of the treaty because it does not ban the research, development, and terrestrial storage of ASAT systems or space-based systems. She restated U.S. concerns that "it is not possible to develop an effectively verifiable agreement" that would ban space-based weapons or terrestrial-based ASAT systems.

Rocca reiterated, however, U.S. support for the negotiation of voluntary transparency and confidence-building measures so long as they were done without "linkage" to any arms control agreement.

The draft code indeed avoids many of those linkages. It includes no definition of weapons nor prohibits their placement in space. It also does not expressly limit missile defense, which particularly after the 2008 U.S. test is viewed by many as a latent ASAT capability. A French diplomat told Arms Control Today in an e-mail Jan. 7 that the code instead "focuses on the development of space activities for all states for peaceful purposes."

The diplomat indicated that the code would not be submitted to the CD or considered a counterproposal to the PPWT. As next steps, the EU will launch bilateral consultations with space-faring and other interested countries "with a view to amending the project and reaching a text that would be acceptable by the greatest number of countries."