Originally Published 2013-06-07 00:00:00 Published on Jun 07, 2013
The EU, having taken the lead in initiating the international space code, must be patient in taking it to a meaningful conclusion. It must engage in wider consultations at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels as a means to bridge the political divide between states.
International Space Code: EU needs to be patient
Concluding the first round of the open-ended consultations on a Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities in Kiev, Ukraine in May 2013, Principal Adviser and Special Envoy for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament of the European External Action Service Jacek Bylica, in a press statement, said that the EU plans to complete the process and finalise the code by next year. Ambassador Bylica rightly emphasised the worsening of the outer space domain including the growth of space debris even over the last five years when the draft of the Code was being discussed. Meanwhile, the number and types of actors engaged in outer space activities have gone up significantly. Militarisation and potential weaponisation of outer space are also issues of concern. All of this makes outer space crowded, congested and contested. However, as Amb. Bylica also pointed out, there is no one single UN department that looks at both the safety and security of outer space in a holistic manner. There are institutions and mechanisms such as the UN COPUOS that looks at the peaceful activities and the Conference on Disarmament (CD) that looks at the security aspects pertaining to outer space. A code may be an apt instrument to cover both these aspects while bringing the existing mechanisms and treaties under its purview. Against this backdrop, the EU has argued that the process of establishing the Code should be completed by 2014.

While this exercise is not an easy process and the Kiev meeting was meant to be part of this process, it certainly was a forward step as it brought together a larger number of countries to start the conversation around the Code. The meeting in Kiev, attended by more than 60 countries, proved itself as an important platform for countries to air their reactions and responses to the EU-proposed Code, both on the process as well as the content. However, setting a deadline of one year appears to be hastening the process a bit too quickly.

Most space-faring states understand and appreciate the need to establish the rules of the road to govern activities in outer space as a means to ensure the long-term sustainability. Nevertheless, the process leading to the formulation of an instrument cannot be hastened to be concluded in such a short of time. States need to spend considerable time debating issues, from the need for such a mechanism to the principles and scope of such an instrument, as well as the process. For many states, the process is as important as the instrument. To hasten the process may not help in enlisting the support of a large number of countries.

On the other hand, it is understandable that the EU has expended considerable amount of energy and resources into this exercise. However, it has to be more patient in letting the process take its due course if it has to muster the critical support it requires. A process such as this should ensure that it is supported not only by a significant number of countries but also supported by those countries that are seen as significant. Second, a truly international effort in the code formation began only in 2011-12 and it appears that a measure of this nature cannot be concluded in a of two years.

This is not exclusive to the space code debate but holds true in the larger context of arms control. Any arms control measure must be initiated at the global rather than regional level. These should ideally be taken up in the CD or other UN institution that may carry larger legitimacy at least in the context of many of the developing countries. Enlisting the support of these countries is critical in ensuring the endorsement, and thereby longevity and effectiveness of the instrument. Such measures could also be initiated through pre-proposal consultations among a smaller working group, an inter-governmental group, space agencies of established space-faring powers or even a group within the CD that could deliberate upon and consider the utility of different measures in the context of developing a code or any such measure.

However, the more important aspect in gaining greater traction for any arms control measure is to proceed at a pace that is comfortable to all. This is particularly important for the Code that has seen a bit of resistance from outside of the EU capitals. Countries are going to be skeptical when a group of countries or a particular region takes the initiative to produce a mechanism, particularly if it is an arms control measure, as has been the case with the space code. One group of countries cannot decide upon a course of action and expect it to be endorsed by the rest. These exercises have to be truly global and inclusive if they have to be endorsed by a large number of states.

Meanwhile, other established and emerging space powers also need to make earnest efforts and participate in these processes. Major space powers sitting on the fence need to start shedding their political differences and start contributing to the process in a constructive manner. This is critical given that the challenges facing outer space are huge and space is truly global requiring global attention and action.

In conclusion, the EU having taken the lead in initiating the international space code must be patient in taking it to a meaningful conclusion. The EU in this regard must engage in wider consultations at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels as a means to bridge the political divide between states and have it endorsed by as many states as possible. However, such endorsement in large numbers can come about only if the EU were to move at a pace that is comfortable to all and not hasten the process by setting artificial deadlines.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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