Image: In this image from June 2002, astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz works with a grapple fixture during a spacewalk on the STS-111 mission to perform work on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA. - Photo: 2019

Outer Space, the Common Heritage of Mankind, In Peril

By Somar Wijayadasa*

NEW YORK (IDN) – The world’s arms race—which is being played out with sophisticated weapons largely in the battle fields of Asia and the Middle East – is steadily advancing into a new frontier: outer space.

And he who dominates outer space, argue military analysts projecting into the future, may perhaps dominate the world.

Recently, the United States President Donald Trump formally established the U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM) saying that “Our adversaries [Russia and China] are weaponizing Earth’s orbits with new technology targeting American satellites that are critical to both battlefield operations and our way of life at home. Our freedom to operate in space is also essential to detecting and destroying any missile launched against the United States”.

Stressing that the “SPACECOM” will ensure that America’s dominance in space is never threatened, Trump added: “It’s a big deal that will defend America’s vital interests in space – the next war-fighting domain”.

Last year, Trump said that “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space; we must have American dominance in space”.

“Star Wars” may become a reality with the militarization of outer space

Trump’s ambitious idea for military dominance in space has shocked the world with apprehension and dismay, and with humor as well.

On September 1, 2019, invoking the Star Wars movie, the Observer editorial quipped that “The thought of Donald Trump as space commander-in-chief, whizzing around the Milky Way, zapping alien invaders and conquering new worlds, is both comical and terrifying”. 

It is no secret that many countries including the U.S., Russia, China and India have recently developed military satellites and other sophisticated weapons that can be used to conduct military operations in space.

If all these countries aspire to be “the dominant military power in space”, that will no doubt lead to another insanely dangerous and costly arms race in outer space. 

It is estimated that a single satellite launch can range in cost from a low of about $50 million to a high of about $400 million though China and India can make those for a fraction of that cost.

As I described in my previous article “The Devastating Arms Race Rages Unabated” published in IDN on August 10, 2019, we could utilize those “trillions of dollars” we waste on weapons and useless wars on more momentous life-and-death issues.

The Soviets opened up space exploration

At the height of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union (Russia) launched its first Sputnik satellite into orbit in 1957, and many more later – including the first animal (Laika) in 1957, first human (Gagarin) in 1961, first woman (Tereshkova) in 1963 , and first spacewalk (Leonov) in 1965, to name a few – ushering in an enviable space exploration.

That inspired many countries to launch satellites taking advantage of space technology for a multitude of purposes ranging from military advancement to global communications, transportation, navigation, environment, health, and most importantly security and defence. 

According to the UN, thus far, 4,857 satellites have been launched into outer space, and according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that keeps a record of operational satellites, as of April 2018, there were 2,062 active satellites in orbit. 

This means that there are over 2,500 dead satellites known as space junk or orbital debris hurtling around the planet at high speed that would possibly cause collisions, impede the launching of new satellites, and hinder peaceful exploration of space.

Today, even private companies such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are scrambling to use the space (though near earth) for tourism. These demand more comprehensive and binding rules and regulations in the form of international treaties.

For over 60 years, it was the genuine hope of all peace-loving people that outer space exploration would be for the benefit of mankind until those who wish to dominate others discovered that outer space can be used for military dominance.

The United Nations Treaty on Outer Space

The United Nations, having envisioned the multitude of benefits for mankind as well as the potential for dangerous military uses of satellites in space, created the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, better known as the Outer Space Treaty.

Though concise with 17 Articles, it represents the basic legal framework of international space law and established the cardinal principle of “the peaceful exploration and use of outer space” for the benefit of all countries.

The Treaty is explicit on States’ responsibilities. For example: It forbids any nation from claiming sovereignty over the moon and other celestial bodies;

It urges States to carry out activities in the exploration and use of outer space, in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding;

It prohibits the establishment of military bases, conducting military maneuvers, testing of any weapons in space or on any other celestial body, and are not permitted to use weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, in outer space, or on any celestial body.

It requires that all States Parties to the Treaty conducting activities in outer space agree to inform the UN Secretary-General as well as the public and the international scientific community. 

Proving that every law has a loophole, Article IV, for instance, only explicitly bans nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Today, there are other types of dangerous weapons that could be used in space that do not fall under these categories.

President Trump’s assertion that “Our adversaries [Russia and China] are weaponizing Earth’s orbits with new technology targeting American satellites” may have arisen from the fact that China, Russia and India have indeed created weapons that can target satellites in space. 

Even in this case, the drafters of the UN Treaty having prophesied this possibility included in Article VII that “Each State Party to the Treaty … from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air or in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies”.

Additionally, there are other Treaties relevant to outer space activities: The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that prohibits nuclear tests in outer space; the 1968 Astronauts Rescue Agreement that requires the safe return of astronauts and objects launched into space to their country of origin; the 1972 Liability Convention establishing procedures for determining the liability of a state that damages or destroys space objects of another state; and the 1976 Registration Convention requiring the registration of objects launched into space. These Treaties have to-date successfully prevented warfare in space.

Though it is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, it is questionable whether the United States would undermine the Treaty and make outer space a war-fighting domain, and unwittingly motivate other countries to enter into a mindless and expensive arms race to militarize the outer space.

UN’s efforts to ban weapons in outer space

Regardless of the specificity and viability of the UN Treaty, the UN General Assembly has passed many resolutions calling for the continued peaceful use of outer space and to prevent militarization in space.

In 2008 and 2014, Russia introduced draft treaties to ban all weapons in outer space, but the United States dismissed this proposal as “a diplomatic ploy by the two nations to gain a military advantage”.

Then, again in 2018, UN attempted to pass a resolution that would immediately commence negotiations on “an international, legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space”.

Even though 121 nations voted for it, the U.S., UK, Israel, France, and Ukraine voted against it – accusing Russia, China and India of pursuing anti-satellite weapons and laser weapons, and also for the lack of a verification regime to monitor compliance.

It is reprehensible that these few countries hold the whole world hostage by not abiding by the basic principle of “the peaceful use of outer space” enshrined in the UN Treaty, and agree to a peace treaty to ensure that outer space will not become “the next war-fighting domain” of any country.

The lurking danger is if superpowers decide to militarize outer space and attempt to strategize their military superiority mimicking “Star Wars” games and destroy our already endangered planet.

Since all technologically advanced countries – the U.S., Russia, China, and India – now have anti-satellite missiles it would be sensible for all nations to abandon their suicidal dreams of “world domination”, and join hands with the United Nations and all its peace-loving member states to adopt a “Peace Treaty” that includes elimination of all military weapons from outer space, and also hastily ratify the UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and allow all nations to live and thrive in peace.

*Somar Wijayadasa, an International lawyer was a UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 September 2018]

Image: In this image from June 2002, astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz works with a grapple fixture during a spacewalk on the STS-111 mission to perform work on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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