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Space Code Process Called ‘Unsuccessful’

March 2016

By Timothy Farnsworth

A U.S. official in recent weeks has publicly said for the first time that the process for negotiating an international code of conduct that would establish rules for behavior in outer space has failed.

At a Jan. 11 event at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Mallory Stewart, deputy assistant secretary of state for emerging security challenges and defense policy, described the negotiations as “unsuccessful.” She elaborated on the comments in a Feb. 16 email to Arms Control Today.

In her Jan. 11 remarks, Stewart cited a lack of consensus by countries over fundamental definitions of terminology, such as what constitutes a space weapon and a peaceful use of space. “We’ve had the problem across the board where a completely civil-oriented and peaceful use of space is accused by another country of being a sort of weaponization of space,” she said. She went on to say that the debate over “the code highlighted that we need to come to some consensus on these basic terms.”

Stewart said once countries reach a basic consensus on these definitions, they could move forward, first to a “political agreement” that sets parameters of “responsible behavior” and “then potentially a long-term treaty if we can get to the point [at] which we all work from the same definitions and [the treaty] is verifiable.”

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

Since 2008, when the European Union began the process of developing a code, the deadline for producing a final text had been repeatedly pushed back. The code was supposed to be opened for formal negotiations last July at the United Nations, but the agenda was amended to include issues related to finalizing the process for negotiating the code, such as deciding on the appropriate venue. At that time, officials from key countries indicated there was no timetable for finalizing the agreement. (See ACT, September 2015.)

In her Feb. 16 email, Stewart said, “[W]e understand that the European Union continues to discuss next steps on the Code. The international community is certainly in agreement that the space environment is at risk today from challenges arising from natural and man-made hazards.” EU officials have not announced a timetable for further negotiations on the code.

During her Jan. 11 remarks, Stewart stressed other diplomatic initiatives the United States is undertaking in order to “inspire responsible behavior in space and dissuade irresponsible behavior.” She said the United States is pursuing bilateral and multilateral space security dialogues that aim to “prevent miscommunication, misperception, and miscalculations” by sharing threat assessments and other information on the space environment. She said the dialogues also would improve the resiliency of the space assets of the United States and its allies by coordinating technology use and sharing capabilities. She said the State Department wants to pursue these dialogues over the coming years with more and more partners. Making space situational awareness as wide as possible through State Department and Defense Department initiatives will give the United States a greater chance of holding other states accountable for their behavior, Stewart said.

“It’s not that we don’t want to ever get to legal constructs into space,” Stewart said. Rather, she said, the international community is “just trying to figure out how to get there in a really informed manner from the same…starting point and with the same understandings.”