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Washington sparks a space spat at the United Nations

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | published December 11, 2018

At the United Nations, outer space used to be a realm of relative peace and cooperation. Every fall, virtually all the world’s nations are represented at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee meeting, which considers matters related to disarmament and international security, including in outer space. There, many space-related resolutions were typically so uncontroversial as to be adopted without a vote. The high level of cooperation allowed for broad international agreement on space policy, and generated some practical recommendations. For example, in 2013, a UN Group of Governmental Experts agreed on a set of “Transparency and Confidence Building Measures” on outer space, which the General Assembly has encouraged member states to implement. Among other things, the measures promote the exchange of information on space policies and activities, risk reduction efforts (like keeping spacecraft far enough apart to avoid collision), and visits to space launch facilities.

The diplomatic atmosphere, however, was dramatically different at this year’s First Committee session in October. The Committee adopted four resolutions dealing with outer space security—and the United States voted “no” on all four. These resolutions are not legally binding, but do set out policy positions and hence can be viewed as statements of political intent. By rejecting all four, Washington signaled, in effect, that whatever the international community sought to do on space concerns, it opposed. This was in stark contrast to previous years, when the United States did join the consensus on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures, and merely abstained on a resolution seeking to prevent an arms race in outer space.

The change in approach comes as senior US officials have started referring to outer space as “a warfighting domain,” and in a year that US President Donald Trump has declared it his goal to achieve American dominance in space and establish a Space Force that is “separate but equal” to other branches of the US armed services. It is not clear that he will succeed in the face of Congress or military leaders who don’t support a stand-alone service, but he is quite serious: Last week, Politico revealed a draft presidential directive outlining proposed details of the new force.

What America said “no” to. So how, specifically, did Washington signal its new disinclination to cooperate? Below is a brief recap of the resolutions that were under consideration and the rationales the United States put forward for rejecting them.

The international community has long feared an arms race in outer space that could turn this global commons into a battleground. To ward off the threat, Egypt and Sri Lanka regularly submit the resolution “Prevention of an arms race in outer space,” which sets out basic policy on how to achieve this goal. For 30-plus years, the resolution has had overwhelming support. This year, of the United Nation’s 193 voting members, 181 voted yes. The United States has never been part of that majority support, but in recent years was content to register its view with an abstention. This year, though there was no textual change to the resolution, the United States decided to cast a “no” vote.

The UN General Assembly frequently establishes Groups of Governmental Experts comprised of subsets of states (15 to 25) to study specific issues and make recommendations on how they should be managed. Such groups normally operate over a two-year period and only issue a report if all participating states agree. At the 2017 General Assembly, Russia led a successful initiative to create a Group of Governmental Experts to consider “substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.” The group had its initial meeting in August and is not due to report back until 2019. So this year, sponsor states submitted the resolution “Further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space,” essentially a place-holder to maintain a slot on the Committee’s agenda. Washington had opposed creation of this Group of Governmental Experts, but is still participating in it. Nonetheless, this year, the United States was one of only three states (along with Ukraine and Israel) to cast a negative vote.

UN members have long been concerned over keeping outer space a weapons-free zone. While the foundational Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits weapons of mass destruction in space, it is silent on other types of weaponry. Capitalizing on this concern, since 2014 Russia has annually submitted a resolution on “No first placement of weapons in outer space.” It encourages states to uphold “a political commitment not to be the first to place weapons in space.” Several countries have criticized this resolution for its failure to define a “space weapon,” and because—as some interpret it—it could prompt states to develop space weapons in order to respond if another country crosses the threshold first. The United States and 11 other countries rejected this resolution this year, with 40 states abstaining.

Finally, one promising avenue states have espoused, at least in their public statements, is the adoption of cooperative measures to promote transparency and confidence concerning outer space activity. As it has done since 2005, this year Russia submitted a resolution on “Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space.” The resolution essentially supports the measures agreed by the Group of Governmental Experts in 2013, and encourages states to exchange information on implementation. Ever since it was first introduced, this resolution has been adopted without a vote, as transparency and confidence-building are ideas that enjoy consensus support. The United States in particular has stressed its support for them, which it prefers to legally-binding measures. Although 176 states supported the resolution this year, this display of common purpose and comity among nations was apparently too much for the Grinch advisors to the US delegation, and the United States and sidekick Israel cast “no” votes.

A threat to the collective interest. UN delegates may offer statements when they cast their votes, and these “explanations of vote” illuminate the political currents underlying Washington’s rejectionist stance. In her November 6th explanation of vote, US representative Cynthia Plath said that American support for transparency and confidence-building measures “ends when such efforts are tied to proposals for legally-binding arms control constraints and limitations.” In American eyes, the culprits here are “fundamentally flawed arms control proposals” put forward by Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing first proposed their draft treaty on preventing placement of weapons in outer space at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 2008; Washington has characterized it as a “hollow and hypocritical effort.” In her explanation of vote, the US delegate quoted US Vice President Mike Pence when she accused Russia and China of “aggressively developing and deploying technologies that have transformed space into a warfighting domain.” This echoes what the White House said in the National Space Strategy revealed in March, which blamed “competitors and adversaries” for turning space into a “warfighting domain.” Given its own rhetoric and actions, though, it would appear to be the Trump Administration that wants space to be seen this way.

The Russian delegation, for its part, not surprisingly attributed the worsening climate for space security to American action. In an October 24 statement, the Russian Deputy Head of Delegation Andrey Belousov drew attention to the fact “that US operational documents regulating space operations and special military directives in this regard have been for a long time providing for the use of preemptive and anticipatory measures in outer space on the basis of subjective assessments.” He went on to stress that “Continuing the policy towards ensuring … US ‘space dominance’ does not contribute to a constructive dialogue on strategic stability at all.” The Russian delegate also criticized US development of space-based ballistic missile interceptors, concluding, “If this trend continues, the work at all the negotiation tracks pertaining to outer space will end up with no results and return to zero level.”

This open and strident US-Russian dispute, and its wrecking-ball effect on prospects for space cooperation, was certainly a matter of concern for other delegations, although their statements were circumspect. Several US partners signaled their distance from the hostile stance towards legally-binding measures for space security that has increasingly marked Washington’s statements. Japan’s delegate said, “The importance of enhancing the rule of law in outer space needs to be reaffirmed.” Australia’s statement, while sharing a critical assessment of the Sino-Russian draft treaty, said, “Australia is committed to a rules-based global order, which extends to space.” The EU delegate said, “we believe that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and other international space law as developed in the UN framework will remain the cornerstone of global governance of outer space.”

Other states, less closely allied with Washington, were even more explicit in their support of new international legal instruments. The Egyptian delegate said, “there is a clear need for a legally binding instrument that would complement the existing international legal framework by preventing an arms race in outer space and filling the existing legal gaps in this area, especially taking into consideration the alarming announcements by some States in relation to their plans of weaponizing outer space, in addition to the continued development of military capabilities devoted to attack[ing] outer space assets.” The South African delegate said, “we believe that a Treaty on the Prevention of an arms race in outer space would complement and reaffirm the importance of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which aims to preserve space for peaceful uses by prohibiting the use of space weapons and the development of space-weapon technology.”

It is not clear why the United States decided to take such a negative stance on space security at this fall’s First Committee. Beyond the animus the Trump Administration has displayed towards multilateralism in general and arms control agreements in particular, space is an environment on which the United States and the West are disproportionately dependent—as they own the vast majority of satellites—and where the preservation of a non-weaponized status would seem to be in the national interest. While Washington purports to support the adoption of non-legally-binding transparency and confidence-building measures, its gratuitous rejection of relatively anodyne UN resolutions simply because they refer to proposals it doesn’t like will not foster the kind of cooperation with other states required to advance its agenda. The escalating rhetoric and threat perception, coupled with aggressive-sounding “space dominance” policies, are hardly conducive to sustaining a cooperative international effort to prevent a destructive space conflict. US allies should caution Washington against engaging in such a counter-productive strategy that threatens the collective interest.

Global cyber security norms: a proliferation problem?


At the invitation of the ICT4Peace Foundation, Paul Meyer, Senior Advisor of the Foundation, prepared his analysis of the most recent developments at the United Nations and elsewhere regarding the development and promotion of norms of responsible state behaviour in Cyberspace. He analyses the recent process at the UN (UN GGE, Open-ended Working Group), new instruments such as the Paris Call, Digital Peace Initiative, Digital Geneva Convention, and the recent norms proposal by the The Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace.

He concludes that the international community’s effort to develop norms of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace is currently facing a crisis that may also be an opportunity. The crisis is the breakdown of what had been a consensus at the United Nations as to how work on such norms should proceed. The failure of a UN expert group to agree on a report last year and the adoption of parallel and competing processes at this year’s General Assembly has cast a shadow on and much uncertainty as to the future direction of inter-governmental discussions.

This situation has however also presented an opportunity for other cyber security stakeholders in the private sector and civil society to highlight their own proposals for norms to govern state conduct. While there may be a risk of norms proliferation down the road, the near-term challenge will be for these stakeholders to find a way to engage states in a process to adopt and implement such norms of responsible state behaviour which they alone can realize.

Continue reading on the ICT4Peace Foundation website: Global Cyber Security Norms.

Canada and space security diplomacy: getting back into the game

Hill Times | 26 November 2018

Despite the rapid expansion in the use of outer space and a disturbing deterioration in relations among major space powers, the Canadian government lacks a clear foreign policy for space security.

There was a time when Canada was known for its activism on space security issues in the international arena. As an early adopter of satellite technology, Canada appreciated the importance of preserving a safe and secure operating environment in outer space. This acknowledged interest was reflected in Canada’s diplomacy. Among the measures that prime minister Pierre Trudeau advocated during his Peace Initiative of 1983- 84 was a ban on high-altitude anti-satellite weapons recognizing the risk that the debris created by such weapons would pose for all space operations (a risk that has only increased significantly in the interim as use of space has grown exponentially with some 1800 satellites currently active).

In tandem with its diplomatic initiative, the Canadian government invested in a major study of the feasibility of utilizing satellites to verify future outer space arms control agreements. This study, known as PAXSAT, concluded that it would be feasible to provide such verification via space-based technology.

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Visions on the future of cyberspace clash at the UN

First published on OpenCanada, 15 Nov 2018 | A fragile consensus over norms of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace, as Paul Meyer observes, has fallen victim to East–West geopolitical tensions.

If finding common ground on the sensitive issue of state conduct in cyberspace was not already difficult enough, then the results of this fall’s United Nations General Assembly First Committee, which focuses on disarmament and international security, has made it all that more complicated.

After more than a decade of slow but steady progress on identifying norms of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace, the existing consensus has broken down and a bizarre, bifurcated path has been adopted for the future.

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Review: Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

French economist Thomas Piketty’s bestseller presents a massive empirical analysis of the dynamics and structure of wealth and income in countries with capitalist economies since the late 18th century. His book relies primarily on the historical experience of the rich countries of France, Great Britain, the United States, Japan, and Germany. The result is a discovery of an empirical law that produces an ever-increasing growth in wealth relative to national income in these countries. Ever increasing wealth  leads to extreme concentrations of wealth in the hands of the wealthiest 10% and income earned by the highest 10% of income earners in the population. The concentration of wealth is so great that much of it is passed on to the next generation in inheritances so that eventually economies tend to be dominated by a high proportion of inherited wealth. This outcome violates the “meritoric” value of democracy — that the inequality of income and wealth are just only if they are the result of hard work and skill. Inherited wealth is not the result of hard work and skill of the recipients.

Piketty’s analysis begins with the relationship between wealth and income. Note that wealth and capital are terms that mean the same thing and that they are used interchangeably throughout the book. Capital represents the market value of assets of real estate, stocks and interest bearing assets such as bonds, GICs and savings accounts in banks. These capital assets generate annual incomes in the form of rents, profits, stock dividends, capital gains, royalties and interest  all of which are “income from capital”. Income from capital is then added to “income from labour” (in the form of wages, salaries and self employment income) to produce income. So when Piketty refers to income he means the sum of income from capital and income from labour. The distinction between these two types of income is significant because they are distributed in very different ways among the three broad classes in society: the rich, the middle class and the poor. Income from capital amounts to around 30% of national income in Britain and France and 20% in the United States and Canada.

Increasing inequality is most dramatic in the US where the share of total income earned by the top decile of income earners rose from 33% in 1970 to almost 50% in 2010. Approximately 70% of this increase reflects the share of income earned by the top 1% of income earners which rose from 8% in 1970 to 20% in 2010. The latter set of figures has led to the unrest in the US that was manifested in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Whether or not this unrest will be destabilizing depends on the future organization and strength of the Occupy movement relative to the effectiveness of other organizations that are engaged in justifying the inequality. Since the 1980s neoconservative groups in the US have aggressively asserted justifications for these inequalities. These include the arguments that inequalities are justified because the increase in wealth represents a reward for hard work, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship or because higher tax rates on high income earners to correct the inequality would reduce incentives to work hard or, alternatively, act as incentives for them to move production activities out of the country to the detriment of all citizens.

Continue reading (PDF download, 13pp): Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Trudeau Liberals ditch their party’s moral high ground on nuclear disarmament

The Hill Times, October 10 | Page 16

There I was, at the microphone reading the official policy of the Liberal majority government of Canada on nuclear disarmament to a rather perplexed seminar audience. Why was Doug Roche, a severe critic of this policy, pronouncing it from the podium? The answer is: not one Liberal Member of Parliament would come forward to speak on their own party’s policies on a paramount issue that affects the safety of every Canadian.

The Liberal Party is running away from one of the great issues of our time. It hasn’t always been like this. Thirty-five years ago, the Liberal prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, stuck his neck out by journeying to the capitals of the major nuclear-weapons states to plead with them to come down from their nuclear mountains. Two decades ago, the Liberal foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, pushed NATO to change its nuclear policies and align them with the goals of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So why the reticence today?

The empty Liberal chair last week was at a seminar sponsored by the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which embraces 16 civil society organizations across Canada, and Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a nongovernmental organization that signed up more than 1,000 members of the Order of Canada calling on the government to take major diplomatic action for nuclear disarmament.

The seminar, titled Canadian Leadership on Nuclear Disarmament, featured Joe Cirincione, a renowned American nuclear security expert; a panel on NATO with Ernie Regehr, Peggy Mason, and Tom Sauer, all of them distinguished experts on nuclear disarmament issues; and it tried to have a panel of representatives from all the major political parties to give their parties’ policies. The process of lining up speakers started last June. We were sent from one Liberal official to another, and finally were told that Andrew Leslie, parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister, could not leave the Parliamentary Precinct on a Monday (the day of our seminar). I wondered: could he not go eight blocks for a 20-minute presentation at the Cartier Place Suite Hotel?

We thought the government’s policy on nuclear disarmament should at least be read into the record of our meeting (the result of which will be an informed letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on policy proposals). So I read Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s statement filed in the House of Commons Sept. 17.

It said Canada “does not intend to sign” the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted at the United Nations in 2017 by 122 states, because the major nuclear-weapons states oppose it and, “without the participation of nuclear-weapons states it will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon.” Rather, Canada wants more work done to build a treaty that would end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

NDP MP Alistair MacGregor personally contributed his party’s position and the Green Party sent a statement. The Conservative Party, like the Liberals, was nowhere to be found. It had also sent us on a merry-go-round chase to find a speaker. It was the absence of the Liberals—the government—that was most revealing of the dire situation Canada has descended to from the days of Axworthy and Pierre Trudeau.

In 2016, during the run-up to the negotiations at the United Nations that produced the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, the United States government sent a letter to all its NATO partners demanding that they oppose such negotiations. The U.S. feared the stigmatization of nuclear weapons and a legal challenge to the military doctrine of nuclear deterrence—which is precisely what the framers of the prohibition treaty want. The treaty, when it arrived a year later, prohibited the possession of nuclear weapons. This went further than the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enjoins state parties to negotiate “in good faith” the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Blustering, Washington (along with London and Paris) said it would never sign. Prime Minister Trudeau got some very bad advice and, in the House of Commons, called the negotiations “useless.” That is not what UN secretary general Antonio Guterres thinks: he has called the treaty “historic.” Pope Francis went public in “firmly condemning” the “very possession” of nuclear weapons, and the Holy See was one of the first to sign and ratify the treaty. Now, nearly 70 states have signed and close to 20 have ratified. When the number of ratifications reaches 50, it will enter into force. What will Canada do then?

Canada’s Liberal government is pretending that this historical shift to the moral and legal stigmatization of nuclear weapons isn’t happening. But it is. Maybe the big powers will hold onto their modernized nuclear weapons for a long time to come, but they will do that without a shred of moral or legal standing.

Nobody thinks we can get to a nuclear-weapons-free world overnight. But shouldn’t Canada keep standing up for the principles involved? Is there not one Liberal MP who will do so?

When I read the government’s policies at the seminar, I did so without comment. My job, at that moment, was to be a bland spokesperson.

But now I am back to my regular life, dissenting and stating as clearly as I can that the present Canadian Liberal government has abandoned the valued moral and legal policies of the past, which were aimed at saving Canadians from the spectre of nuclear warfare.

Douglas Roche, a former Independent Senator, Progressive Conservative MP, and former ambassador for disarmament, is author of Hope Not Fear: Building Peace in a Fractured World.