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The consultation process for the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities ends

Gabriella Irsten | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

In 2008 the EU initiated a process on a Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities as an answer to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly Resolution 61/75 from 2006 calling for concrete proposals for “Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities”.

In 2013, the EU tabled a draft International Code of Conduct (ICoC) and launched an open-ended multilateral consultations process in order to get support from the international community for such code. The consultation process has consisted of three open-ended multilateral meetings, the first one in Kiev, Ukraine in May 2013, the second one in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2013, and the third and final one in Luxembourg on May 2014. More than 80 states have participated overall in this consultation process.

During the first open-ended consultation in Kiev, it quickly became obvious that states had different expectations for the meeting and the code. While Australia, Canada, Japan, United States and EU member states had endorsed the ICoC even before the first meeting in Kiev, others, for example Russia, Brazil, China, Bangladesh, India, and many Latin American states raised concerns over lack of transparency and disappointment over not being sufficiently consulted.

Despite this rocky start, the EU has since the Kiev meeting made efforts to achieve a more inclusive process, and aimed engaged all interested states, including emerging space actors. However, some main disagreements have remained throughout the three multilateral consultation meetings, for example if the code should focus solely on peaceful uses of space, if it should include security related issues and how it will relate to already existing international space law and UN processes.

Only peaceful uses

States like Russia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Sri Lanka and Laos have raised concerns regarding the security references in the draft and in particular to the reference of self-defense. While the objective of the EU was to have a code dealing with both safety and sustainability of space environment as well as the stability and security in outer space, Russia, China, Thailand, Brazil, Ethiopia, Ukraine and Belarus have argued for the code to only deal with peaceful uses and proposed a change of title for the code to an international code for peaceful uses in space.

During the Bangkok meeting, the African states participating in the consultations formed a common position on the right to the peaceful use of space by all states, currently space-faring or not. The common African position also strongly emphasized that the code must in no way be used to limit or make it more difficult for those states that are not yet actors in space to engage in space activities in the future. Throughout the consultation process, African countries have also continuously called for greater inclusion of capacity building and technical assistance/sharing in space technology. Such language was included in the fourth revised draft tabled after the Kiev meeting but have since then met resistance from states like Russia and China.

Self-defense

China and Russia also consistently advocated for all references in the draft that deals with security, weapons or military related aspects and self-defense be removed. Brazil, Mexico, China, Chile and Pakistan have pointed out that references to self-defense could encourage an arms race in outer space.

France, Italy, Estonia, Australia, and the United States supported the inclusion of a reference to self-defense, emphasising that it is consistent with the language of the UN charter. Furthermore the United States, Canada, Japan, Italy, United Kingdom, Germany and other EU members argued for the inclusion of security related issues due to the dual use function of satellites and the wide range of activities used for both civilian and military purposes.

Venue and process

The reoccurring obsession in disarmament on what forum is the most appropriate was also evident in the three consultations meeting. Many states, for example Egypt, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Russia and the Philippines, stated that existing UN forum would be the most appropriate places to hold the discussion on the ICoC. Other states, like EU members, argued that an ad hoc process enables wider participation, given that the mentioned UN forums are limited in their membership. A joint African position in Luxembourg emphasized that the finished code should be under the UN umbrella, but did not specifically called for the process to take place within the UN.

Furthermore, Russia, China, and Ethiopia raised concerns about the code’s non-legal status. They have proposed to emphasize the code’s non-legally binding voluntarily status and argued that it therefore belongs in the on-going UN discussion on transparency and confidence building measures (TCBM). In this spirit, these states have also objected to any references or links to the UN charter or other legal binding treaties. States like China, Brazil, India and Russia believed that the code would be competing with other existing UN/international instruments and not work in support of needed legally binding instruments. Canada welcomed the new emphasis on the voluntary nature of the code in the draft presented at the Bangkok meeting, and South Africa also have continued to highlight the importance of the code remaining voluntary.

At the Luxembourg meeting, the Chinese delegation proposed a compromise that would keep the reference to the UN Charter but remove the reference to self-defense. This proposal got support from both Canada and Germany.

Conclusion

China and Russia’s motivation behind the strong criticism against the code arguable comes from their own effort to promote negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament on a draft "Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat of Force against Outer Space Objects" (PPWT) since 2008. During the consultations in Luxembourg last week, China and Russia announced that they will present an updated draft of the PPWT in the CD in June 2014. The discussion on this new draft will be a sign whether or not the three open-ended consultations on the Code has created a stronger interest to discuss legally binding measures or not. 

The active participation by many non-space faring nations, in particular from the African region, has emphasised the fast growing dependence that the world today has on space activities and has also highlighted that there are some disagreements between states with more advanced space programmes and emerging space actors.

Since the first meeting in Kiev, the process has been more open and inclusive, but confusion still remains about the methodology and the way forward for the ICoC. The main substantive disagreements shown at the first meetings in Kiev and Bangkok were still present during the last consultation in Luxembourg.

It does not appear to be clear for anyone, including member states of the EU themselves, what the next step for the code is. Many are worried that the process will end here without an outcome. No official diplomatic conference to negotiate a final text has been announced, despite many calls from participating states for such a process.  

The Chair of the meeting in Luxembourg, Ambassador Bylica of the EU, noted in his closing remarks that calls for diplomatic negotiations had been made. He also recognized that many participants had raised the need for a UN endorsement of this process. However, Ambassador Bylica stated that the EU will produce a sixth draft of the code based on the Luxembourg consultations and reiterated the wish to successfully conclude the ICoC process by the end of 2014 or soon thereafter.   

Despite the many challenges, the ICoC process has provide a starting platform for discussions on understanding the complex environment of outer space. The multilateral consultations have encouraged governments to address the issue and build capacity amongst emerging space actors to participate actively in the discussions. In addition, it has the potential to stimulate other discussions in other forums, like discussions around a PPWT. The process on developing an ICoC has been a part of a bigger movement on the issue of safety and security in space. It is hoped that these consultations and negotiations in themselves can contribute to enhanced confidence building, increase transparency and have a positive impact on a much wider spectrum of issues than the topic of the process.