Space Code of Conduct Backdoors Treaty Process?

Posted: January 28, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , , ,

‘Code’ can be used to try and create politically and militarily binding outcomes when legally binding outcomes (like treaties) can’t be mustered.

And reading between the Washington Times’ lines, there seems little doubt the government space bureaucracy has been smitten by the EU Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.

Three congressional staffers told The Washington Times that Pentagon and intelligence analysts said in a briefing Monday that the administration is looking to sign on to the European Union‘s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.

The briefing followed the completion of an interagency review that recommends the United States sign on to the document with only a few minor changes to its language, according to two administration officials familiar with the review.

That recommendation is awaiting final approval from the National Security Council.

A senior State Department official familiar with the interagency review of the code of conduct said: "We had everyone look at this. Our defense programs are not harmed by it."

Hmmm.  ‘Not harmed by it’ is lawyer talk and it isn’t necessarily the same as enhancing U.S. national security.  Define harmed.  Define it.  Define everyone.  Explain how you came to such a conclusion.

Apparently the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which does have the power of law (although almost completely lacking the power of enforcement), is insufficient.  Similarly, non-coded space self-restraint and self-limiting behavior is inadequate and more — a code, used to create the aforementioned political and military limitations — is needed.

A draft of the code of conduct dated Sept. 27 says countries that sign on to the document vow to "refrain from any action which intends to bring about, directly or indirectly, damage or destruction of outer space objects unless such action is conducted to reduce the creation of outer space debris and/or is justified by the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense in accordance with the United Nations Charter or imperative safety considerations."

So would radio frequency jamming of a radio signal in outer space be considered damaging?  It would seem to be damaging to the coherency of that signal.  As such, it would appear RF jamming of a satellite’s signal to be inconsistent with the code. 

And what of the desire to minimize space debris?

"Space debris, to me, I equate it with global warming in orbit," said Matthew Hoey, a military space consultant who has worked for the U.S. government and the U.N. Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies. "It is a race against time, and once we pass the tipping point, there is no reversing it. The ramifications of a collision on economics, space exploration and communications — these are grand issues."

I think Mr. Hoey has created a world-class, no…a universal-class oxymoron: global warming in orbit. But it isn’t a good analogy regardless given the make-up-the-data-we-need story of global warming (and as a point of emphasis, space debris is a credible issue).

Mr. Hoey said the code of conduct’s emphasis on space debris is "a good thing," adding that the EU code "is a great precedent."

"It is not exactly binding," he said. "There are not exactly penalties. It is a bit of an honor system. But it’s the first step towards space-based arms control that we will eventually need."

Ah, there’s exactly where the real agenda is: arms control.  Well, the National Space Policy has already expressed its willingness for space arms control as long as it is equitable, verifiable, and in the security interest of the United States and its allies.  But how does the code compare to other space arms-control proposals?

Paula DeSutter, who was an assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance under President George W. Bush, said the EU code would be much better for U.S. national interests than a space-based arms control treaty introduced by the Russian and Chinese delegations at the 2008 U.N. Conference on Disarmament.

That proposed treaty, known as the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty (PPWT), is regarded by the Obama administration, and the Bush administration before it, as unverifiable and not in the U.S. national interest, according to public statements by both administrations.

"The code of conduct needs a few changes, but it is certainly far better than the PPWT," Ms. DeSutter said. "One of the good things about it is that it recognizes specifically the legitimate right of self-defense in space and the virtue of the U.S. satellite shootdown in 2008. It does not appear to limit U.S. missile defenses in any way."

Saying the EU’s space code of conduct is far better than the PPWT is an endorsement that lacks an anchored position.  After all, a toothache is also far better than a brain tumor, but that doesn’t make it good.

(A) congressional staff member said: "There is a suspicion that this is a slippery slope to arms control for space-based weapons, anti-satellite weapons and a back door to potentially limiting missile defense."

And that’s the biggest concern here.  Space arms control efforts have a misplaced desire to prevent the U.S. development and use of a space-based missile defense.  It always comes back to item three of the arms controller’s creed: space-based missile defense will be destabilizing. (As background, items one and two are it will never work and it costs too much).

So instead of a code of conduct, let’s hear a space arms control treaty proposal that is equitable, verifiable, and in our national interest or even better yet, come up with ways of enforcing the existing laws of the Outer Space Treaty.

  1. Coyote says:

    The goal of the Code is to eventually arrive at space arms control. The arms control community is attempting to seduce countries into sighing up to the Code now… with the intention of adding more restrictive language or interpretations to it later. In other words, it is an attempt to slowly backdoor countries into space weapons bans and forcing them to accept international management of all space activities. Soon, the arms control community will argue that the code carries the weight of customary law and there for is settled law. This is a tactic.

    This is a coordinated approach with what is going on in the UN, which seeks more aggressive space arms control through treaties. The UN is pursuing the fast route, while the advocates of the codes are seeking the slow route.

    The end is the same; restraining freedom of action in space, which paradoxically, is somewhat at odds with the Outer Space Treaty.


  2. ST-1 says:

    “It is not exactly binding,” he said. “There are not exactly penalties. It is a bit of an honor system. But it’s the first step towards space-based arms control that we will eventually need.”

    Question: If this Code of Conduct essentially creates “rules of the road” such as non-interference with other’s spacecraft…why would we “eventually need” an arms control treaty for ASAT weapons? Doesnt the rules of the road in this so called Code of Conduct preclude the use of space weapons? Also, if one reads this Code, one sees how it tries to please everyone…non interference, but we can still defend ourselves….defend ourselves from what? Doesnt the writers of this COde indicate an understanding that there will always be people/nations who will ignore this like many do full up treaties and that it might be a good idea to be ready to defend our space assets? Just a few thoughts for discussion…

    • Coyote says:


      The goal is to later claim that the Code has become customary law and is therefore binding and enforceable through the UN. There is no need for countries to sign or ratify voluntary codes, but the community is seeking this so they can press for claims that it carries the weight of law at an earlier date.

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