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No Harmful Interference against Space Objects: Building on Precedent

in Program

By Michael Krepon

No “global commons” can properly provide essential goods and services
unless those who use it cooperate with each other. It is therefore not
surprising to find many bilateral and multilateral treaties, executive
agreements, as well as international and domestic regulations containing
provisions against harmful interference for activities related to the
seas, the skies, telecommunications, and environmental protection. Codes
of conduct that foster responsible national and commercial utilization
are essential to prevent friction, accidents, and misuse of these global
commons.

Space is the newest of all global commons to be utilized by nations
and commercial interests. Some norms and “rules of the road” exist for
space but, not surprisingly, they are not nearly as developed as for the
high seas and the skies. The primary instruments by which nations and
commercial interests utilize the global commons of space are satellites.
Rules of the road relating to satellites are required no less than for
ships at sea or airplanes.

One essential element of a code of conduct for responsible
space-faring nations is a “no harmful interference” norm for satellites.
There is ample precedent for this key element of responsible
stewardship of space, as the following table, prepared by the Stimson
Center’s Jared Young, suggests. For example, many arms control and
reduction treaties explicitly provide injunctions against harmful
interference of satellites utilized for monitoring treaty compliance.

As this table indicates, codes of conduct also apply to military
forces operating in close proximity in peacetime. For example, the 1972
“Incidents at Sea Agreement” between Washington and Moscow states that
“Ships of the Parties shall not simulate attacks by aiming guns, missile
launchers, torpedo tubes, and other weapons in the direction of a
passing ship of the other Party, not launch any object in the direction
of passing ships of the other Party, and not use searchlights or other
powerful illumination devices to illuminate the navigation bridges of
passing ships of the other Party.” (Article III.6) The 1989 “Prevention
of Dangerous Military Activities Agreement” between Washington and
Moscow prohibits “Interfering with command and control networks in a
manner which could cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment of the
armed forces of the other Party.” (Article II.1.d) The agreement also
states that “When personnel of the armed forces of one Party, in
proximity to personnel and equipment of the armed forces of the other
Party, intend to use a laser and that use could cause harm to personnel
or damage to equipment of the armed forces of that other Part, the
personnel of the armed forces of the Party intending such use of a laser
shall attempt to notify the relevant personnel of the armed forces of
the other Party. In any case, personnel of the armed forces of the Party
intending use of a laser shall follow appropriate safety measures.”
(Article IV.1)

Codes of conduct are designed for peacetime, but they can help
prevent crises and armed conflict. Codes of conduct are even supposed to
apply to military forces during wartime.

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