A Russian Veto Threatens to Trigger a Nuclear Arms Race in Outer Space

A view of the Earth and a satellite as seen from outer space. Credit: NASA via UN News
A view of the Earth and a satellite as seen from outer space. Credit: NASA via UN News
  • by Thalif Deen (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

The vetoed resolution was expected to “affirm the obligation of all States parties to fully comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, including not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

Randy Rydell, Executive Advisor, Mayors for Peace, and a former Senior Political Affairs Officer at the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), told IPS that the Security Council’s record on disarmament issues has long suffered from the same plague that has also tormented the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva: namely the veto and the CD’s “consensus rule.”

Sadly, this vote on the outer space resolution should surprise no one, he said.

The world is facing a crisis of the “rule of law” in disarmament. Key treaties have failed to achieve universal membership, failed to be negotiated, failed to enter into force, failed to be fully incorporated into domestic laws and policies of the parties, and failed to be fully implemented, while other treaties have actually lost parties, he pointed out.

While the Outer Space Treaty will remain in force despite this unfortunate vote, Rydell argued, the specters of the existing nuclear arms race proliferating one day into space, along with unbridled competition to deploy non-nuclear space weapons, have profound implications not just for the future of disarmament but also for the peace and security of our fragile planet.

“The Charter’s norms against the threat of use of force and the obligation to resolve disputes peacefully remain the most potentially effective antidotes to the contagion unfolding before us, coupled with new steps not just “toward” but “in” disarmament”.

“I hope the General Assembly’s Summit of the Future in September will succeed in reviving a new global commitment to precisely these priorities,” declared Rydell

By a vote of 13 in favor to 1 against (Russian Federation) and 1 abstention (China), the Council rejected the draft resolution, owing to the negative vote cast by a permanent member.

Besides the US,  UK and France, all 10 non-permanent members voted for the resolution,  including Algeria, Ecuador, Guyana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, Slovenia and Switzerland.

Jackie Cabasso, Executive Director, Western States Legal Foundation, told IPS it is impossible, amidst the current geopolitical rivalries and fog of propaganda, to evaluate the ramifications of the Security Council’s failure to adopt this resolution—though it does underscore the dysfunction in the Security Council created by the P-5’s veto power.

“Russia and China have long been proponents of negotiations for a comprehensive treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, and in 2008 and 2014 submitted draft treaty texts to the moribund Conference on Disarmament,” she said.

The United States, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, rejected those drafts out of hand, said Cabasso, whose California-based WSLF is a non-profit public interest organization that seeks to abolish nuclear weapons as an essential step in securing a more just and environmentally sustainable world.

A week after its April 24 veto, Russia submitted a new draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council that goes farther than the U.S.-Japan proposal, calling not only for efforts to stop weapons from being deployed in outer space “for all time,” but for preventing “the threat or use of force in outer space.”

The resolution reportedly states this should include bans on deploying weapons “from space against Earth, and from Earth against objects in outer space.” By definition, this would include anti-satellite weapons.

With new nuclear arms races underway here on earth, with the erosion and dismantling of the Cold War nuclear arms control architecture, and with the dangers of wars among nuclear armed states growing to perhaps an all-time high, it certainly remains true, as recognized by the UN General Assembly in 1981, that “the extension of the arms race into outer space a real possibility.”

“We are in a global emergency and every effort must be made to lower the temperature and create openings for diplomatic dialogue among the nuclear-armed states. To this end, the U.S. and its allies should call Russia’s bluff (if that’s what they think it is) and welcome its proposed new resolution in the Security Council,” declared Cabasso.

Speaking after the vote, the representative of the United States said that this is not the first time the Russian Federation has undermined the global non-proliferation regime, according to a report in UN News. “It has defended—and even enabled—dangerous proliferators.”

Moreover, with its abstention, the US said, China showed that it would rather “defend Russia as its junior partner” than safeguard the global non-proliferation regime, she added.

“There should be no doubt that placing a nuclear weapon into orbit would be unprecedented, unacceptable, and deeply dangerous.”

The US said Japan had gone to great lengths to forge consensus, with 65 cross-regional co-sponsors who joined in support.

Japan’s representative said he deeply regretted the Russian Federation’s decision to use the veto to break the adoption of “this historic draft resolution.”

Notwithstanding the support of 65 countries that co-sponsored the document, one permanent member decided to “silence the critical message we wanted to send to the world,” he stressed, noting that the draft resolution would have been a practical contribution to the promotion of peaceful use and the exploration of outer space.

The representative of the Russian Federation, noting that the Council is again involved in “a dirty spectacle prepared by the US and Japan, said, “This is a cynical ploy.  We are being tricked.”

Recalling that the ban on placing weapons of mass destruction in outer space is already enshrined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, he said that Washington, D.C., Japan, and their allies are “cherry-picking” weapons of mass destruction out of all other weapons, trying to “camouflage their lack of interest” in outer space being free from any kinds of weapons.

The addition to the operative paragraph, proposed by the Russian Federation and China, does not delete from the draft resolution a call not to develop weapons of mass destruction and not to place them in outer space, he emphasized.

Meanwhile, outlining the treaty’s history, Cabasso said that in Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1967, States Parties agreed “not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

Yet, according to the UN Yearbook, by 1981, member states had expressed concern in the General Assembly that “rapid advances in science and technology had made the extension of the arms race into outer space a real possibility, and that new kinds of weapons were still being developed despite the existence of international agreements.”

In his May 1 testimony to the House Armed Services subcommittee, John Plumb, the first Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, claimed that “Russia is developing and—if we are unable to convince them otherwise—to ultimately fly a nuclear weapon in space which will be an indiscriminate weapon” that would not distinguish among military, civilian, or commercial satellites.

In February, President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia has no intention of deploying nuclear weapons in space. It is troubling, therefore, that on April 24, Russia vetoed the first-ever Security Council resolution on an arms race in outer space, said Cabasso.

The resolution, introduced by the United States and Japan, would have affirmed the obligation of all States Parties to fully comply with the Outer Space Treaty, including its provisions to not deploy nuclear or any other kind of weapon of mass destruction in space. China abstained.

Before the resolution was put to a vote, Russia and China had proposed an amendment that would have broadened the call on all countries—beyond banning nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—to “prevent for all time the placement of weapons in outer space and the threat of use of force in outer space.”  The amendment was defeated, she said.

Note: This article is brought to you by IPS Noram, in collaboration with INPS Japan and Soka Gakkai International, in consultative status with UN ECOSOC.

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