The base will increase international tension and intensify an international arms race!

10 reasons to say no to the radar »
Donate - CZ7655000000002720320001

International Law Aspects of Missile Defence

9.11.2008 - Kate Hudson

Following is the contribution of Kate Hudson presented on the 1st of November 2008 at the conference "American Missile Defense in Europe" held in Prague. Katharine "Kate" Jane Hudson is a chairperson of the British peace organization Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). She works as Head of Social and Policy Studies at London South Bank University and edits the journal Contemporary Politics.

                                         •          •          •

The question of international law may seem very dry, but in actual fact it is an intensely political question. Looking at the treaties that relate to missile defence, and who supports them and who ignores them, tells us a vast amount about global politics and ambitions. In particular it clearly illustrates the intentions of the US and the response of other major military powers. First, I will put missile defence in its historical context, then consider current regulations and conclude by looking at who is blocking new treaties which prevent an arms race taking place in space.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the US administration began to take further steps in the development of what it called the US National Missile Defence programme. This was a new version of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative from the early 1980s, and part of the arms race that he initiated at that time, together with the cruise and Pershing missiles that gave rise to such massive opposition across Europe in the early 1980s. SDI was popularly known as ‘Star Wars’, because of its sci-fi characteristics, using infra-red sensors to track and destroy missiles. The system was not pushed through to completion at that time, because the arms race finally broke the economy of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War ended, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

SDI and the current US missile defence systems are both forms of anti-ballistic missile systems. They are designed to shoot down incoming missiles as they head towards their targets. These systems were banned during the Cold War, under the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed by the USA and Soviet Union in 1972. The treaty was introduced to ensure that neither country would risk attacking the other, because of fear of retaliation. Each country was allowed two sites at which it could base a defensive system, one for the capital and one for ICBM silos. In 1974 a protocol reduced the number of sites to one each, largely because neither side had developed a second site. The sites were Moscow in the Soviet Union, and Grand Forks Air Base, North Dakota in the US.

The obvious point about ABM systems is that they end the common vulnerability of countries; there would be no ‘mutually assured destruction’ – thus the end of even any gesture towards the notion of a balance between states. A country without such a system has to rely on the country that does have one choosing not to attack. That is not a stable situation. For many years, the ABM Treaty was considered to be the cornerstone of arms limitation, but that was eventually to be destroyed by the US.

During the 1990s there was some difference of view within the US about which way to go on missile defence. The US Congress was dominated by the Republicans from 1994, albeit under a Democratic presidency – indeed Congress prevented Clinton from ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. Clinton also came under Republican pressure over missile defence: the Republicans were extremely keen on it, but the Democrats opposed it on the basis of its cost, its dubious reliability and the likelihood that it would cause a new nuclear arms race. Under pressure from the Republicans, in 1996 Clinton agreed to its development. In March 1999 its deployment was endorsed by Congress, even though a workable system did not yet exist. In September 2000, Clinton announced that he would not authorise deployment of the system, and left that decision to his successor. Unfortunately his successor turned out to be George W. Bush, so a green light for the system was assured.

So the ABM Treaty held good for three decades, but was destroyed by US withdrawal in June 2002. There can have been few starker warnings than that of US determination to dominate the world militarily. Even before September 11, the US Department of Defense had issued a document entitled Joint Vision 2020, which outlined US plans for achieving ‘full spectrum’ dominance by the year 2020. This dominance will be achieved in land, sea, air, space and information, and the document addresses full spectrum dominance across a range of conflicts from nuclear war to major theatre wars, from regional conflicts to smaller scale contingencies. One of the most worrying features of this very comprehensive vision of dominance, is the emphasis on the domination of space, bringing with it the danger of the introduction of weapons – possibly even nuclear weapons – into space. Indeed, the US does not rule out the possibility of fighting war in space and US Space Command has been quite explicit about this. As former Commander in Chief General Joseph W. Ashey has said: ‘Some people don’t want to hear this…but – absolutely – we’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space.’ Already many of the supposedly civilian communications and satellite systems in space can be – and have been – used for military purposes. They were used in the recent war on Iraq, and the great danger now is the possibility of actual weapons being put there.

As well as withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, the US has also shown complete contempt for the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty that came into force in 1967. This states that: ‘Space belongs to all humankind, should benefit everyone and should be explored peacefully to promote international co-operation and understanding.’ A similar approach had been taken with the Antarctic Treaty which came into force in 1961. It was the first arms control treaty of the Cold War, banning military activity on that continent. Seemingly without irony, the US State Department website refers to the Outer Space Treaty as seeking “to prevent ‘a new form of colonial competition’ and the possible damage that self-seeking exploitation might cause.”

It is hard to see how the US reconciles this statement with its plans to put military bases on the Moon. In December 2006, the BBC reported US space agency NASA’s plans to start work on a permanently-occupied base on the Moon. In this aim, the US is also going against the requirements of the 1979 Moon Treaty, which turns jurisdiction of all heavenly bodies (including the orbits around such bodies) over to the international community. Thus, all activities must conform to international law, including the UN Charter. In fact, the US has never ratified the Treaty, nor has any state which already engages in manned space exploration, or which intends to do so e.g. the United States, Russian Federation, People's Republic of China, Japan, India, and Iran. Thus it has so far had a pretty small impact on actual spaceflight.

The treaty makes a declaration that the Moon (which the treaty notes includes all celestial bodies for the purposes of language) should be used for the benefit of all states and all peoples of the international community. It also expresses a desire to prevent the Moon from becoming a source of international conflict. A key features of the Treaty is the banning any military use of celestial bodies, including weapon testing or as military bases. 

It is quite clear that the United States rejects treaties “limiting its actions” in outer space. And US space policy completely opposes “any new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit US access to or use of space”. It insists that “proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for US national interests.” In fact, in a United Nations forum in 2006, a US State Department official said, “The high value of space systems has led the United States to study the potential of space-related weapons to protect our satellites from potential future attacks, whether from the surface or from other spacecraft. As long as the potential for such attacks remains, our Government will continue to consider the possible role that space-related weapons may play in protecting our assets.”

Perhaps the US approach to space is best summed up by Vision 2020’s description of US Space Command: ‘dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.’

These developments around Missile Defence and weapons in space are clear examples of the US administration’s contempt for international treaties and a multilateral approach to global affairs. This has been the case on a wide range of issues, including the dismissive US attitude towards the 1997 Kyoto Agreement on reducing greenhouse emissions, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the International Criminal Court.

Current US insistence on pursing the missile defence system is giving rise both to increased global tensions and to significant opposition within Europe. It has already sparked international controversy and provoked a new global arms race, with the danger of nuclear weapons use.  President Bush insists that the US needs missile defence in case terrorists or ‘rogue’ states ever develop inter-continental ballistic missiles able to reach them. In fact, this is extremely unlikely, as terrorists or states without long-range missile technology could deliver nuclear weapons more easily, cheaply and with less likelihood of detection in other ways – in a truck, on board ship, or even as part of an aeroplane. Thus, missile defence is widely understood to be a system deployed against major state actors such as Russia or China. It is no doubt understood as such within those two countries.

Not surprisingly, both Russia and China have sought to introduce a new international treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space often referred to as PAROS. In fact, the overwhelming majority of UN member states are concerned that putting weapons in outer space will lead to an arms race. Every year, they insist that a multilateral treaty is the only way to prevent such an arms race. In 2006, Russia argued that if all states observe a prohibition on space weaponization, there will be no arms race. Russia and China also support establishing an obligation of no use or threat of use of force against space objects and have submitted a draft treaty to the UN on preventing the placement of weapons in outer space.

Each year in the UN General Assembly, a resolution on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) is introduced and adopted by an overwhelming majority of UN member states. In fact, every country in the world votes in favour of a PAROS treaty except for the US and Israel. The US has voted “NO” for the past three years, and Israel has abstained. The US administration argues that the existing multilateral arms control regime is sufficient, and that there is no need to address a non existent threat. As one US representative said in 2006, “there is no—repeat, no—problem in outer space for arms control to solve.”

So the problem is clear. The US is pursuing an aggressive military agenda which it wishes to pursue not only in Europe, but in Outer Space. Missile Defence is the means by which it wishes to achieve this goal. Our struggle is relevant not only for our continent, but for our whole planet and beyond. 


« back


Get the latest news
of the No Bases Initiative
delivered to your inbox