Can We Defuse the Outer Space Arms Race?
Despite not being a new phenomenon, the latest anti-satellite testing has been perceived as crossing an outer space Rubicon.
With the heightened recognition of the threat of ASAT to our modern way of life and continued efforts to address the issue through different fora, some argue there is a reason for optimism. In this context, the latest mandate of the United Open Ended Working Group is a viable conduit as it acknowledges the possibility of negotiating a treaty in the future. The idea is that working on “voluntary norms” would create momentum for a legally-binding treaty. This is further encouraged by countries declaring unilateral, voluntary bans on ASAT testing. However, remaining open to negotiating a treaty does not necessarily mean that it would happen, and the field of disarmament has had many false starts that never materialized in treaties. Thus, the aforementioned optimism would indeed only be rewarded if the Conference on Disarmament is mandated to commence negotiations on a comprehensive, legally binding treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space.
GIVEN THE most pressing nature of this issue, the important question is whether the international community, and more specifically countries opposed to commencing negotiations within the Conference on Disarmament on a PAROS treaty, will heed the wakeup call and rise up to the challenge, or will it be yet another missed opportunity? Will this legal gap be finally filled through a multilateral regime, and possibly address mitigation and removal of space debris? Or will the reluctance to cede national sovereignty over outer space activities prove to be too strong to overcome and the multilateral legally binding treaty be thwarted?
Hatem Elatawy is a former delegate of Egypt at the Conference on Disarmament. All opinions are that of the author and do not reflect any official position.