New Draft of Space Code Seen As Stronger

Timothy Farnsworth

A new draft of the European Union’s proposed international code of conduct for space “is a stronger, more useful document than its [June 2012] predecessor,” according to a recent analysis by the Stimson Center.

The new draft, which was released Sept. 16, is the fourth since the EU first proposed a code in December 2008. It places “increased emphasis on international cooperation in space” and expands the section related to information sharing, the Nov. 5 analysis says. The September draft also “places increased emphasis on consultative measures,” calling for annual rather than biennial meetings of states.

Officials from 60 countries met Nov. 20-22 in Bangkok to discuss recent changes to the code at the second round of consultations on the document among government officials.

Analysts contacted by Arms Control Today in December said a fifth draft of the code is likely, taking into consideration discussions from the Bangkok meetings, details of which have not been made public. It appears there will be at least one more round of consultations to discuss another draft, the analysts said.

The goal of the code is to “create a voluntary set of norms of behavior with the aim to reduce the potential for accidents, incidents and conflict” in space, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement at the beginning of the Bangkok meeting.

In a Dec. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Victoria Samson, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation in Washington, said she thinks most countries, including some that have argued for a binding treaty, have concluded that they can benefit from a nonbinding document.

Samson said she believes a version of the code could be opened for signature by the end of this year but that the “security aspects of what determines responsible behavior, such as the right to self[-]defense, are still up in the air.” She said the next draft of the code is likely to include more details on some of those contentious security issues and take into consideration discussions from the Bangkok meetings, but that these changes are likely be small.

According to Samson, “the chances are pretty good” that the United States will sign on to the code once the process is complete. In a January 2012 statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States supported the EU’s effort to draft a code of conduct for space, but said it would not sign on to the 2010 draft. The United States was critical of the EU process for drafting the code at the time, saying more input was needed from emerging spacefaring countries such as Brazil and India. (See ACT, March 2012.)

The EU has been using the consultations to garner broader support from the international community, especially from emerging spacefaring countries. In a Nov. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, cited Ukraine’s announcement of support for the code after the first round of consultations in May 2013 in Kiev as an example of success in that effort.

In his welcoming remarks to the Bangkok meeting, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul emphasized the need for a code of conduct in space. He said the code would “allow interested parties to address issues such as space debris [and] space traffic and share information in a transparent and a timely manner to minimize the risk of space collisions and damage to artificial space objects.” It is “essential” that the process for drafting the code “be firmly based on mutual benefits of all concerned” and on “transparency and voluntary cooperation,” he said. He also highlighted the importance of “patience and close consultations.”

According to Krepon, although some Latin American countries continue to want a binding legal instrument, the biggest questions revolve around whether China, India, and Russia will support or oppose the proposed code. Russia stated its support of the EU initiative during a June 5 meeting of the Conference on Disarmament. China and Russia have proposed their own draft treaty, but it has been the U.S. position not to support this effort. (See ACT, July/August 2012.)