In this world of constantly recurring natural and manmade disasters, outer space should be an oasis of peace and service for mankind. Surely, the UN has enough to do in a world that often functions as an emergency in progress. Still the UN is both upward and forward looking with a UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, (OOSA), a Subcommittee on Universal Space Law, and a Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
We attended a briefing held in observance of Disarmament Week. The discussion focused on how to use space science and technology for peaceful purposes, and how to prevent arms proliferation into outer space. We heard from the UN Ambassador Abdelaziz from Egypt, and Sri Lanka Ambassador Sarala Fernando, who are taking a particular interest in this area. Ambassador Fernando explained that her country’s interest is an extension of the law of the sea, to the concept of a global commons, as citizens of the planet.
The UN office is involved with the scientific, technical and legal aspects of outer space. The goal is to promote universal space law. An outer space treaty registers already launched space objects. The subcommittee is also concerned with bringing applications of scientific and technical knowhow to underdeveloped countries.
Control of space debris is a project of immediate importance. Thousands of objects travel at great speeds and could collide with satellites, widely used for weather prediction and communication. Sergio Comacho, Director of OOSA has said there is currently no technology to collect or bring space debris down. However, every object bigger than four inches is monitored on a daily basis. Amazing!
The next urgent consideration is to prevent an arms race in outer space. Already space is a communication center for military purposes. Unfortunately existing laws and norms are regulating weapons which are described as defensive, but could be effective as attack weapons. The ambassador from Sri Lanka pointed out that the lines between commercial, scientific and military uses of outer space are becoming blurred. The Egyptian ambassador believes a legally binding agreement is needed to clarify the issues, but the problem is political.
A subcommittee is also concerned with the use of space technology in the field of environmental protection. For example, they report on the use of remote sensing applications in areas such as land degradation, desertification, global warming, pollution control, and disaster mitigation.
The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is much concerned with the future potential of the militarization of outer space.
Some background: In 2002 the US government withdrew from the 1972 US-Russian Treaty on Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty). One consequence was abandoning of the treaty’s prohibition against space-based missile defenses. The Bush administration’s missile defense program contains space-based weapons. In 2003 an official of the US Missile Defense Agency said the US would base three to five armed satellites in space as early as 2008 for testing purposes. For the past 20 years, over 150 UN member states have supported an agreement to prohibit the weaponization of space and have called for a conference.
After much discussion, the US has said it is willing to discuss the subject, but will not negotiate. China, a very concerned party has stated that it is willing to discuss the subject with a view to negotiation. As a result the conference has not taken place. The present is a stalemate, with an alarming potential for an arms race.
Technology spreads. Only a firm global agreement to keep space as a zone of peace can make the world safe from the dangers of the militarization of space.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld AEU’s National Service Conference Representative to the UN Sylvain Ehrenfeld IHEU Representative to the UN.