EU Ready for Negotiations on Space Code

December 2014

By Timothy Farnsworth

The European Union says it is ready to begin negotiations on a final draft of its proposed international code of conduct for activities in outer space, but several countries are still asking for more time.

In an Oct. 27 statement to the UN General Assembly First Committee, Clara Ganslandt of the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm, said the EU and many participating countries are ready to move the process of developing a code of conduct for space to a “negotiating phase.” Since June 2012, the participants have been engaged in “open-ended” consultations.

Ganslandt, who heads the division of the diplomatic service that deals with weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons, and space issues, said several countries requested more time to study the proposal that would launch negotiations. The EU is “currently consulting” with these states, she said.

In her statement, Ganslandt said the latest draft of the code of conduct from the May 2014 consultation in Luxembourg would serve as the basis for the negotiating phase and “remains open to further changes.”

The proposal calling for the negotiations to begin has been circulated among some UN member states, but was never officially presented to the UN Secretariat as a formal document and has not been made public, according to a UN official familiar with the document.

The goal of the code is to establish guidelines for responsible behavior in space that would reduce the risk of debris-generating events and increase transparency in space operations in order to avoid collisions between space assets and debris.

Since 2008, when the EU began the process of developing a code, the deadline for producing a final text has been delayed at least twice. In 2012, when the open-ended consultations were announced in order to gain broader support from the international community, the EU had hoped to host a diplomatic conference by the end of 2013. (See ACT, September 2012.) At the end of the final consultation meeting in May 2014, meeting chairman Jacek Bylica said in his closing remarks that he hoped to conclude the process by the end of 2014.

In a Nov. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Bylica, who is principal adviser and special envoy for nonproliferation and disarmament in the EU diplomatic service, said moving to a negotiating phase of the process would be difficult next year because of “a very rich calendar” that includes events such as the month-long nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference and the first conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. Even so, the EU is “looking for ways which would enable all willing to do so to engage in the negotiations” on the code, Bylica said.

Christopher Buck, the U.S. alternate representative to the UN First Committee, said in his Oct. 27 statement to the committee, “We now look forward to working next year with the European Union and the international community in an inclusive process to finalize” the code of conduct.

In January 2012, the United States announced that it backed EU efforts to establish a code of conduct for space, but would not sign the document at that time. (See ACT, March 2012.) Later that year, the EU established the open-ended consultations as a result of criticism by many countries, including Brazil and India, that the EU process for developing the text was not inclusive enough. (See ACT, July/August 2012.)

Many countries have argued that the United Nations is the appropriate place to debate the code of conduct. In a joint statement at the end of their summit last July, the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—a group of countries known as the BRICS—“call[ed] for an inclusive and consensus-based multilateral negotiation to be conducted within the framework of the UN without specific deadlines in order to reach a balanced outcome that addresses the needs and reflects the concerns of all participants.” Many other countries, including the United States and EU members, have been against negotiating a code within the UN fold to avoid being bogged down in procedural questions. (See ACT, November 2012.)

The BRICS statement also called for negotiations to conclude an “international agreement or agreements to prevent an arms race in outer space” and welcomed the introduction by China and Russia of the updated draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects. The United States has been critical of that draft treaty since China and Russia introduced the original text in 2008.