U.S. Backs Efforts to Draft Space Code

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The United States will join with the European Union and other space-faring countries to develop an international code of conduct for outer space activities, but will not sign on to the EU's current draft of a proposed code, U.S. officials have said.

"The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors.... A Code of Conduct will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a Jan. 17 press release. U.S. officials have discussed whether to support the EU's draft of the code since the original version was circulated in December 2008. (See ACT, January/February 2009.)

The EU released the latest draft of the code in 2010 after receiving feedback from other countries, including the United States. That document retained much of the language from previous versions, including a clause establishing a voluntary commitment to refrain from intentionally harming space objects, measures to control space debris, and mechanisms for cooperation and consultation. It added language to protect countries' rights to self-defense under the UN Charter. (See ACT, November 2010.)

Despite the negotiations between the United States and the EU, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher told reporters on Jan. 12, "It's been clear from the very beginning that we were not going with the [EU] code." When asked why the United States would not sign on to the EU draft, Tauscher said that "it's too restrictive."

Speaking a week later at the Stimson Center, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy Frank Rose said Tauscher's comment was referring to the process surrounding the creation of the EU code more than the substance of the code. "Before you convene a multilateral ad hoc conference to sign the code, you need to develop a process in between to build consensus on a code," Rose said.

In a Jan. 25 interview, Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center and director of its South Asia and space security programs, said that "leaders from other space-faring countries not in Europe, like India, rightly complained that they didn't have co-authorship of the EU's draft." The code "already has important partnerships, like Japan, Canada, Australia, and Europe, but the task now is to get the concept of a code of conduct greater international standing," Krepon said.

EU reaction to the U.S. decision not to sign on to the current draft of the code was "rather mixed and quite negative from the senior officials," according to an EU government official familiar with negotiations over the proposed code.

According to the unclassified summary of the U.S. "National Security Space Strategy," released in January 2011, space "is becoming increasingly congested, contested, and competitive." The clutter of manmade objects is exacerbated by actions such as the "irresponsible" 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris, the report said.

Next Steps

At the Stimson Center event, Rose said the EU will take the lead on negotiating an international code and plans to host a series of experts meetings over the next several months. The United States "plans to actively participate in those discussions," which aim "to develop a consensus text that could become an eventual international code," he said.

Rose said the United States hopes to involve all space-faring nations in the meetings, but he highlighted five countries that should be a focus of EU efforts: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa. However, experts say China and Russia are the two countries that matter most because they are the biggest space-faring countries after the United States.

In a Jan. 26 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a senior fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, pointed to the fast-growing space programs in Asia and said that, "in the absence of an inclusive mechanism, the EU Code is likely to see a repeat" of the experience with the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, "where the majority of the Asian countries that contribute to the challenge of missile proliferation remain outside the mechanism. …