Negotiations on International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities set to begin

Multilateral negotiations on an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities begin in New York on 27 July. They follow on from the consultation process led by the European Union in 2013 and 2014, which ended in Luxembourg in May 2014 without any definitive conclusions, but with indications from many governments that they wanted to negotiate a final text. Subsequent to that meeting, the EU decided to take forward a negotiating process, at which the draft Code developed during the consultative process will serve as the basis for negotiations. So far, 94 governments have registered to participate in the negotiations, which are being hosted by the European Union.

Almost every government in the world agrees that the use of weapons in space would lead to devastating consequences for our daily life on earth and also affect the overall long-term sustainability and peaceful use of space. This significant increase of space activities has meant that the continued absence of a solid regime of rules in space could potentially harm the future of our space endeavours, no matter what country you are from.

The overwhelming majority of UN member states are concerned that the weaponisation of outer space will lead to an arms race and believe that a multilateral approach is the best way to prevent this. A number of new initiatives have taken off in recent years, including the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) debris mitigation guidelines, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space, and Russia and China’s draft treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) in the Conference on Disarmament.

None of these efforts have yet managed to achieve the results needed. While negotiation of an instrument on PAROS has been on the CD’s agenda for decades, the US government has prevented negotiations from beginning on that issue. The other initiatives, while important for increasing transparency and confidence amongst states in terms of practice and policy, cannot replace a legally-binding instrument preventing the weaponisation of outer space. In the meantime, money is being spent to develop technologies that could disrupt and destroy our use of outer space now and for future generations.

An International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities could be a good start to preventing the weaponisation of outer space. The process has provide a starting platform for discussions on understanding the complex environment of outer space. The multilateral consultations encouraged governments to address the issue. But most importantly, this process has the potential to increase transparency and confidence among space-faring actors and others, and to stimulate more concrete, legally-binding work to prevent the weaponisation of outer space.