PARIS — European Union (EU) officials appear to have learned the lessons of their failure in the past five years to win international approval of a proposed international code of conduct in outer space and are reorienting the effort under the banner of humility and a willingness to consult other nations.
U.S. hostility, once a show-stopper for the code of conduct, has been muted with the code’s latest draft. But developing countries remain concerned that the code will have the effect of locking up useful orbits just as emerging nations are getting ready to use them, according to presentations made during a two-day conference on space security organized by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
“There is quite a bit of distrust of all these initiatives” among developing countries, said Sergio Camacho, secretary-general of the Regional Center for Space Science and Technology Education for Latin America and the Caribbean, based in Mexico. “The feedback I have gotten back from developing countries suggests suspicion. The question they ask is: Why are they doing this?”
After initial opposition and confusion about its view, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has endorsed at least the idea of the code of conduct, even if its backing is shot through with qualifiers.
“The United States believes that the EU’s latest draft is a useful foundation and a constructive starting point for developing a consensus on an international code,” said Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy.
Addressing the UNIDIR conference, held April 2-3 in Geneva, Rose said that while the United States has not supported several proposed United Nations efforts to craft treaties intended to limit an arms race in space, Washington has been doing many of the things these treaties want to see.
In addition to providing, free of charge, regular notifications to government and commercial satellite operators of potential satellite collisions from data generated by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network of ground-based radars, U.S. government satellites have been monitoring nuclear arms treaties since the early 1960s, Rose said. That effort continues through little-publicized payloads on the U.S. GPS constellation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites.
“Sensors on GPS and other satellites provide a worldwide, highly durable capability to detect, locate and report on any nuclear detonation in the Earth’s atmosphere, or in near space, in near-real time, contributing to crisis stability as well as treaty monitoring,” Rose said.
The 27-nation European Union has been trying to win global support for the code of conduct since 2008. With so many nations in the developing world reacting negatively to it, the EU now hopes to reorient the effort, said Jacek Bylica, special envoy of the European External Action Service, which is charged to winning support for the code.
Bylica arrived at his job just this year. In his address to the conference, he stressed that the code “is a draft, an invitation to dialogue. It is not something set in stone. It would not be a legal instrument.”
The code’s latest draft retains the original’s focus on declaring that all nations have a right to free access to space for peaceful purposes, and calling on spacefaring nations to preserve the integrity of objects in space. It includes “a due consideration for the legitimate defense interests” of nations in space, and focuses on confidence-building measures including notifications by nations of launches before they occur, and of satellite maneuvers that may affect nearby satellites any satellite malfunctions or pending atmospheric re-entries.
UNIDIR and the National Space Agency of Ukraine are organizing a meeting on the code of conduct May 16-17 in Kiev, at which “the EU intends to move forward in a transparent and inclusive manner,” Bylica said.
It is that last point that has been lacking in the EU effort to secure support for the code, according to officials from nations whose space programs are just getting under way.
Abdul-Hakim Elwaer, director of the department of human resources, science and technology at the African Union Commission, said some African nations view the code in the same way they look at effort to reduce carbon emissions worldwide: a developed-world effort to restrict activity that the developing world views as key to its economic growth.
“Africa has not contributed to the crowding of space,” Elwaer said, noting that of the 60 nations that have placed their own satellites into orbit, only five are African. Any code of conduct, he said, “should not limit the future capacity of Africa in outer space.”
Elwaer said African nations are concerned that the geostationary orbital arc over the equator, the home of most telecommunications satellites, will be unavailable to Africa in the coming years because the major spacefaring nations have reserved the available orbital slots and radio frequencies.
Russian and Chinese delegates to the conference said they would continue their efforts at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament to secure adoption of a treaty called the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), which they have proposed for several years without much effect.
As he began his speech, Rose told the audience, in what could have been a promise or a warning, that he was not going to talk about PPWT.