Space Security Working Group Meets

June 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

The first meeting of the Space Threat Reduction Working Group was held from May 9 to 13 in Geneva. The forum was mandated by a United Nations General Assembly resolution approved in December to promote “norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior” in the space. (See LAWDecember 2021.) Earlier this year, Russia raised procedural objections that delayed the scheduling of the meeting, but Russia participated in this session.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space, but there are no restrictions on other types of weapons in this area. Efforts to launch talks that could produce new understandings on maintaining the peaceful use of outer space have been stalled for years. The working group discussions reflected the continuing differences in focus and approaches to the issue, but also showed that there is growing pressure for tangible results.

“We are trying to have a positive momentum in this process…because it is in everyone’s interest, and so far we have achieved that. We see that there is great commitment and interest in moving things forward,” said Hellmut Lagos of Chile, chair of the Space Threat Reduction Open-ended Working Group, on May 13.

In April, the United States announced that it would “not perform…destructive direct ascension [anti-satellite (ASAT)] missile tests, and that [it] seeks to make it a new international standard for responsible behavior in space. The initiative has received support from other states.

On May 9, the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in Geneva issued a statement promising that Canada would join the ban on ASATs. “For 40 years [Canada] pleaded for the cessation of [ASAT] trials. Today we have joined the United States’ pledge not to test destructive ASAT missiles. We encourage all states to join so that together we can make this a global standard,” the Canadian statement read.

To date, Russia, China, the United States and India have demonstrated their ability to destroy satellites with ground- or air-launched missiles, which produce dangerous space debris that can threaten orbiting satellites and represent anti-space activities that threaten international stability and security. Russia and China have long advocated for a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space, which would focus on banning weapons in space, while other states have sought approaches that prevent actions that harm objects in space from any source.

In a statement on behalf of his government, Aidan Liddle, UK ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, said May 9 that the UK “believes that defining this problem in terms of standards, rules and principles responsible behaviours, i.e. on the actions, activities or omissions of States rather than the capacities themselves, many of which have a dual purpose or are difficult to verify effectively, are more likely to lead to solutions.

Referring to Russia and China, Liddle added that “[w]We recognize that many delegations want these solutions to be enshrined in a legally binding treaty. We hope this will be possible. History has shown that successful legal instruments are usually the result of an iterative process, such as this. Thus, the responsible behaviors approach is not a prescription for taking things slowly, but a way to begin the journey.

The working group will meet again in September and will focus on “current and future threats by states to space systems, and actions, activities and omissions that might be considered irresponsible.” In 2023, the working group will start preparing its recommendations to the United Nations General Assembly.

Jennifer C. Burleigh