Why the Japan-US WMD in Space Resolution Was Critical

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Why the Japan-US WMD in Space Resolution Was Critical

The resolution, which failed due to a Russian veto, sought to reaffirm and extend critical norms against placing weapons of mass destruction in space.

Why the Japan-US WMD in Space Resolution Was Critical
Credit: Depositphotos

A proposed United Nations Security Council resolution on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space failed a few days ago. While 13 members supported the resolution co-sponsored by the United States and Japan, China abstained and Russia voted against the resolution. The negative vote by a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council killed the resolution entirely. Russia called the U.S. and Japanese efforts “yet another propaganda stunt by Washington,” “very politicized,” and “divorced from reality.” 

The resolution was initially proposed in the U.N. Security Council in mid-March with the goal of having all states agree to comply with an existing treaty that prohibits the placement of WMD, including nuclear weapons, in space. 

The initiative comes against the backdrop of U.S. reports that Russia is possibly developing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon that involves setting off a nuclear explosion in space. In mid-February, the chair of the U.S. Congressional Committee on Intelligence warned of a new Russian capability that is in the developmental stage but one that could pose a “serious national security threat.”

Even if designed to generate an EMP, such an explosion could result in indiscriminate destruction of a large number of satellites in space, and also add to the space debris problem, especially in low earth orbit. The destruction of satellites could affect everything from civilian communication and phone-based services to military communication and PNT (position, navigation and timing) services and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) functions. Of course, this is in addition to the potential effects of the EMP itself, which could potentially affect electronic equipment both in space and possibly on the ground. 

The Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967 prohibits the placement of WMD in space. It would be a violation if Russia were to actually use an EMP weapon in space. Russia had previously stated that it is against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space. 

The pedantic differentiate between development and deployment of nuclear weapons in space; the OST only bans the placement of the weapons in space, and not the development of the weapons.

The new resolution put forwarded by the United States and Japan aimed to address this loophole in the OST, because the taboo against the placement or use of WMD in space is a critical one. The new resolution ostensibly hoped to turn attention on the design and development of such weapons in space, and not merely their deployment.

The text of the resolution has not been published publicly, but in introducing the resolution Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said, “There should be no doubt that placing a nuclear weapon into orbit would be unprecedented, unacceptable, and deeply dangerous.” 

There were 62 co-sponsors to the resolution from different regions, reflecting the wide support base for the resolution and the outreach efforts undertaken by the U.S. and Japan. 

In a joint statement on behalf of the U.S. and Japan on the draft resolution, Thomas-Greenfield and Japan’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Ambassador Yamazaki Kazuyuki remarked that given the “significant impact” of space on international peace and security, the resolution underscores the “shared goal of preventing an arms race in outer space and the obligations of all States Parties to comply with the Outer Space Treaty, including not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of WMD.” 

These are commitments made already under the OST, but the resolution adds a plea to all U.N. members “to not develop any nuclear weapons, or other kinds of WMD, that are specifically designed to be placed in orbit around the Earth.” 

Both Russia and China had reservations about the resolution, more so Moscow than Beijing. The two powers introduced an amendment to the U.S.-Japanese text. The Russian ambassador to the U.N. commented that the U.N. Security Council is “again involved in ‘a dirty spectacle prepared by the U.S. and Japan’” and that Russia “being tricked” through a “cynical ploy.”

China’s ambassador elaborated on the amendment to say that resolution should include “all types of weapons and the early elaboration of a legally binding multilateral agreement… Adoption of the amendment will make the current draft more complete, comprehensive and balanced.” 

The amendment did not get the required votes and therefore was not adopted. 

That the Japan-U.S. resolution was a failure is not a surprise given the growing major power rivalry and the animosity that prevails in major power relations. But the norm to not design, develop, and deploy nuclear weapons in space is far too important an issue and a norm that must not be broken.

Breaking norms is easy, but it is a dangerous path to tread for several reasons. First, violation of certain agreed-upon commitments and norms is a slippery slope because it normalizes the bad behavior; second, it is harder to get states to recommit to norms that prevailed for several decades after they have been broken. And if one state violates a norm and justifies its actions, others will find a way to justify their violations as well, making space norms extremely fragile. Given the competitive dynamics that are already at play in outer space, the urgent need is to reiterate some of the critical norms even if they are part of existing treaties and agreements.