Prospects for Preserving a Cooperative Security Framework in Outer Space

Event report by Michael Kennedy
October 20, 2008
New York, NY

On October 20th, the Global Security Institute (GSI), the Secure World Foundation (SWF), and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) co-hosted a panel event at the United Nations entitled “Prospects for Preserving a Cooperative Security Framework in Outer Space.” Amb. Robert Grey, Director of the Bipartisan Security Group, chaired the event, which featured presentations by Dr. Ray Williamson of SWF, Mr. Victor Vasiliev of the Permanent Mission of Russia to the UN in Geneva, and Mr. Nicolas Gérard of UNIDIR.

(L-R): Nicolas Gérard, Bob Grey, Ray Williamson, Victor Vasiliev

In his opening remarks, Amb. Grey highlighted the importance of addressing the issue of space weaponization, adding that it has serious consequences for nuclear disarmament and the prospects for a non-controversial global environment. Looking forward, he remarked that the real test will be to see whether recent unilateral positions or a more cooperative stance emerges on the issue of outer space. He closed by noting the need for “a spring” in outer space policy following what has been a long winter.


Dr. Ray Williamson, Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation, outlined steps that governments and different organizations are taking towards achieving space security. He emphasized that more states are entering space as we are becoming increasingly reliant on outer space to protect human security. Dr. Williamson discussed how some threats to outer space, such as aging satellites, orbital debris and crowding, are threatening the link between space and human security.

Dr. Williamson stated that relevant parties have begun to recognize these threats, but that work towards a convention or other binding documenst has so far proven difficult. A draft codes of conduct has been circulated, which in his view is an important building block towards space security. While noting that those interested in space security must pursue diplomatic and technical avenues, Dr. Williamson acknowledged that understanding space carries its own unique challenges, and differs from our understanding of terrestial issues.

In conclusion, Dr. Williamson emphasized the need for technical confidence-building measures to provide a solid foundation upon which to build up diplomatic efforts. He stressed the important role the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), the General Assembly First Committee and the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space must play in addressing this issue, and indicated that the Secure World Foundation is dedicated to working together with these bodies to produce results. Lastly, Dr. Williamson remarked that only when everyone works together will society be able to utilize space for the many benefits it provides.


Mr. Vasiliev, Deputy Permanent Representative for the Russian Federation, gave a very comprehensive presentation regarding the current state of and future prospects for a cooperative framework on outer space security. He focused on transparency and confidence building measures, noting their importance as a parallel means of promoting more concrete disarmament measures. Despite their importance, there is still no substitute for substantive disarmament measures to prevent war. Diplomatic solutions, he maintained, must follow the UN Charter, and emphasize sovereignty and the non-intervention and non-interference into other states’ domestic affairs.

Mr. Vasiliev traced the history of confidence-building measures in the field of outer space, detailing resolutions, treaties, conventions, and efforts by individual governments, such as France, Canada, and the USSR, stretching back as far as the 1960s. He discussed some measures Russia has taken in the past decade, including posting information on scheduled launches online and announcing they will not be the first to deploy weapons in outer space.

Mr. Vasiliev talked in detail about the draft treaty that Russia and China introduced in the Conference on Disarmament, the “Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty” (PPWT), which had been in development since 2002. Recognizing that space law does not ban the presence of weapons besides WMDs in space, Russia and China are trying to forestall the inevitable chain reaction of weapons proliferation in space by introducing the PPWT as a basis for future negotiations within a multilateral framework.

The treaty aims to strengthen the current space arms control regime and create conditions for future peaceful exploration of space. Additional issues still need to be addressed in the treaty, such as verification protocols. Mr. Vasiliev stated that many countries have provided suggestions towards strengthening the PPWT and that further discussion must take place in the CD.

Mr. Vasiliev concluded his presentation by reviewing the role transparency and confidence-building measures can play in strengthening outer space security. They are an essential part of preventing an arms race in outer space, he asserted, and can help the international community reach agreement on banning the placement of weapons in space, thus ensuring space security. He cautioned that, despite their importance, they must take into account differences in states’ capability, nor can they interfere with domestic affairs, or serve as substitutes for legal obligations in preventing an outer space arms race.


Mr. Gérard opened by highlighting UNIDIR’s role in the outer space security issue, noting that the Institute, with the support of governments and NGOs, has held conferences regarding a treaty on the arms race in outer space since 2002. This places UNIDIR in a unique position of having fielded dozens of suggestions of practical steps towards progress on this issue. Mr. Gérard proceeded to discuss the many different ideas that have been floated by different interested parties over the years.

Measures proposed can be divided into three general categories, those being 1) complete prohibition measures, 2) restricted measures, and 3) permitted measures. All can serve as preparatory and parallel confidence building measures necessary to create favorable conditions and strengthen existing measures.

Most prominent among all categories has been the draft PPWT, which was submitted in the CD by Russia and China in February of 2008. Other measures seen as important are a ban on the test and use of anti-satellite weapons, a non-harmful interference clause, a Space Weapons Test Ban, a Framework Treaty, and unilateral declarations to not be the first to deploy weapons in space.

In terms of disarmament machinery, the CD is seen as the main forum to be used for carrying out action on this issue. More concretely, some have suggested having the General Assembly pass a resolution defining peaceful uses of outer space or creating a working group on cooperative security in outer space. Others favored having the International Court of Justice issue an advisory opinion on outer space security, similar to the one issued regarding nuclear weapons in 1996. Either way, more international cooperation and preliminary steps are prerequisites for progress.


» Click here for an audio transcript of the event, c/o UNIDIR

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