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The Outer Space Treaty entered into force months after its signing by major countries like the US, but 50 years later some are concerned about its long-term viability. (credit: UN Photo)

The Outer Space Treaty at 50: An enduring basis for cooperative security

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On October 10, 2017, the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of a foundational treaty will occur: that of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.This treaty represents an apogee for international cooperation in a unique environment that has only grown in importance in the intervening years.

It might have been expected that the golden anniversary of such an achievement would have been hailed and celebrated with great fanfare by the global community that has benefited enormously from the regime it established. And yet this occasion is likely to come and go with barely an acknowledgment by the 105 states parties to the treaty, let alone the wider stakeholder community. This benign—or perhaps malign—neglect of the Outer Space Treaty should be of concern. It reflects serious negative trends in space security and casts a shadow over the prospects for future cooperative security arrangements.

This benign—or perhaps malign—neglect of the Outer Space Treaty should be of concern. It reflects serious negative trends in space security and casts a shadow over the prospects for future cooperative security arrangements.

The enduring importance of the Outer Space Treaty resides in its crucial foundational principles and provisions. At their core was the designation of outer space as a “global commons” or “the province of all mankind” in the language of the treaty. This special status for outer space meant that it was “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.” The significance of this designation as a conflict prevention measure is apparent if we recall how often disputes over territorial and sovereignty claims have triggered war here on Earth.

The treaty called for the exploration and use of outer space to be carried out “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries” and provided for consultation in the eventuality that an action by one state might cause “harmful interference with activities of other States Parties.” This enshrined a progressive understanding that the many, and not just the few, should benefit from the exploitation of outer space, and that use should be carried out in a manner that did not interfere with anyone else’s activity.

The treaty affirmed that outer space should be a realm “for peaceful purposes” and backed this up with specific prohibitions against the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space as well as any militarization of celestial bodies. The treaty provided for measures to reinforce this cooperative orientation via observation of space launches, visits to facilities on celestial bodies, and consultative arrangements. All in all, the treaty provided an impressive, legally binding, and cooperative framework for maintaining safe and secure access to outer space.

On the basis of this peaceful regime established by the Outer Space Treaty, activity has expanded greatly in the decades following its entry into force. Today some 1,500 satellites are currently active and over 60 states or consortia own space assets. A burgeoning private sector is generating ever more ambitious plans and projects for accessing space and introducing into orbit hundreds, if not thousands, of new satellites. Every country on the globe is benefiting from space-enabled services and the collective contribution of space to the world’s security, prosperity and general well being is vast. All of this activity is premised on continuation of the benign operating environment of space, an environment essentially free up to this point from human-made threats against space assets.

This politico-legal regime conducive to further productive use of outer space is regrettably being challenged and even undermined. The three depositary governments of the treaty (US, UK, and Russia) are not only inactive in officially marking the treaty’s major anniversary, but seem in their declaratory policy to be ignoring its very existence and that of the cooperative security paradigm it represents.

This neglect of the Outer Space Treaty by the very states that championed its creation, points to a disturbing trend in contemporary space security affairs. This trend ignores the constraints on the behavior of actors in space in favor of emphasizing unrestricted freedom of action and the development of national security-related capabilities in support of unilateral moves.

The testing of anti-satellite weapon capabilities has revived the long dormant threat of the weaponization of outer space and the targeting of satellites. Allegations of further developments of ASAT capabilities reaching into even geosynchronous orbit have been traded amongst the three leading space powers. The realities of these military programs are largely concealed from public scrutiny, but what is clearly on display is escalating threat perceptions and associated rhetoric by relevant officials. We are repeatedly told that space is “congested, competitive, and contested” but not reminded that it has been a realm of remarkable, international “cooperation” as well. The Outer Space Treaty embodied this cooperative approach.

It is perhaps time for the rest of the international community and the broad stakeholder community to respond to these negative trends.

Against a backdrop of deteriorating geopolitical relations, accusations of hostile intent in the space arena provide ready substantiation for building up of national counterspace capabilities, thereby fueling an incipient arms race. Diplomatic alternatives to the readily self-fulfilling prophecy of “inevitable” space conflict are apparently not being considered or pursued. The international community needs to find advocates of space peace rather than space war.

It is perhaps time for the rest of the international community and the broad stakeholder community to respond to these negative trends. Countervailing diplomatic initiatives to shore up the “peaceful purposes” regime based on the Outer Space Treaty and fill in some of its lacunae are needed. It would be timely to mobilize “Friends of the Outer Space Treaty” to defend its authority and reject those who seem bent on ignoring its constraints.

Such a diplomatic effort in support of the Outer Space Treaty could have several elements, but the following four would be priority actions. The first step could be a revival of the multilateral negotiations of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. The origins of the Code lie with the EU-initiated proposal for a voluntary set of measures designed to promote the safety, security and sustainability of space activity. This initiative suffered a diplomatic “failure to launch” when the proposed Code was brought before a multilateral meeting in July 2015 in the hopes that the text could be finalized. This was rejected however by a significant number of states, in particular from the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping, who insisted that such a Code needed to be developed under a mandate authorized by the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

The most innovative aspect of the Code was its provisions for institutional support and ongoing discussion by states of its implementation, elements that would compensate for the lack of such institutional support in the Outer Space Treaty. The promising elements of the Code merit being reintroduced as part of an UNGA-mandated negotiation that would ensure that any product would have legitimacy and serve to reinforce the regime centered on the Outer Space Treaty.

A second avenue of action would be to follow-up on the 2016 achievement by the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS). The Committee was able to agree on an initial set of guidelines emerging from the multi-year working group on the long-term sustainability of outer space. Although somewhat tangential to space security concerns per se, the guidelines suggest the possibility of further international cooperation. An early agreement on the next set of admittedly more demanding proposed guidelines would generate much-needed positive momentum during this period of stagnation for outer space diplomacy.

The Outer Space Treaty has well served global interests for half a century and merits positive acts of affirmation.

The third course of action would seek to reestablish, on behalf of the international community, a clear common purpose with respect to outer space. The 50th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty provides a unique occasion to reaffirm the peaceful purposes orientation of the treaty. It is not too late for one of the 105 signatories to host what would be the first-ever meeting of its states parties. Such a meeting would constitute both a fitting commemoration of this key treaty as well as serve as an impetus for reinstating international cooperation as the preeminent aim for the outer space regime. It could also energize a campaign to promote universalization of the Outer Space Treaty and thus bring onboard the almost one half of states not yet party to this vital agreement, starting with the 25 states that have signed but have not yet ratified the treaty.

A fourth step that could take diplomatic energy from the 50th anniversary would be consideration of elaborating a protocol to the treaty that would extend this ban on WMD to all weapons and destructive action in outer space. This would be a way of responding to the international community’s interest in the non-weaponization of outer space without running the risks of attempting to amend the treaty itself.

To conclude, the Outer Space Treaty has well served global interests for half a century and merits positive acts of affirmation. The “peaceful use” regime it established has enduring security value and with reinforcement via certain complementary measures the treaty can continue to provide a solid and enduring foundation for responsible state conduct in outer space.