Revised Space Code Advances

Jeff Abramson

The European Union in late September adopted a revised draft code of conduct for outer space activities after receiving feedback on text circulated in December 2008. (See ACT, January/February 2009.) Endorsed by the EU as a basis for consultation with additional countries, the voluntary code may be opened for signature as early as next year.

The revised code retains many of the features of the earlier draft, including a voluntary commitment to refrain from intentionally harming space objects, measures to control and mitigate space debris, and mechanisms for cooperation and consultation. The section on space operations commits states to avoid damaging or destroying space objects unless such action is “conducted to reduce the creation of outer space debris and/or is justified by the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence in accordance with the United Nations Charter or imperative safety considerations.” That wording is essentially unchanged from the original text aside from the reference to self-defense and the UN Charter. The new wording may make it easier for states that wish to retain flexibility in times of conflict to sign on to the code.

At an Oct. 14 event on space transparency and confidence-building measures where the code was introduced, Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, said Washington hopes “to make a decision as to whether the United States can sign on to the code in the coming months, pending a determination of its implications for our national security and foreign policy interests.” In June the Obama administration unveiled a new space policy supportive of transparency and confidence-building measures. It also promised to consider legally binding measures provided that they do not limit U.S. access to or use of space. (See ACT, September 2010.)

Pedro Serrano, the EU’s UN ambassador, said at the event that the EU is “considering the possibility of opening the code for signature at an ad hoc diplomatic conference, to take place in 2011.” He also indicated that formal negotiations on the code would not take place at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), UN First Committee, or forums dealing with civilian outer space activities such as the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space or UN Fourth Committee.

In recent years, transparency and confidence-building measures such as the code have received greater attention, especially as progress on treaty-based approaches has generally stalled. The CD has been unable to move forward on an agenda to prevent an arms race in outer space or on the 2008 introduced treaty by China and Russia on prevention of weapons in space. At the First Committee in October, China and Russia joined with more than 40 other countries in sponsoring a resolution that would establish a group of governmental experts to begin work in 2012 studying transparency and confidence-building measures. The resolution passed on Oct. 29 by a vote of 167-0 with one abstention, by the United States.