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The space issue that won't go away

Anyone who still believed that military uses of space would not be a major topic of discussion at the UNISPACE meeting in Vienna last month was in for a quick awakening. The first three speakers - United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Austrian President Rudolph Kirchshalaeger, and Austrian Foreign Minister Willibald Pahr (who served as president of the conference) - all mentioned this issue prominently.

The two-week conference, sponsored by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), was held to assess ways in which the developing countries can derive greater benefits from space technology. Many issues related to this goal were discussed (technology transfer, access to geostationary orbit, remote sensing, etc.), but the issue of the increasing military uses of space, including a potential arms race in space, became the hottest topic there.

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Although the controversy over militarization had been anticipated by virtually everyone, the leaders of the United States delegation publicly insisted prior to UNISPACE that militarization would not be a major issue, because it has been assigned to the UN Committee on Disarmament (CD), not to COPUOS, and therefore was not on the UNISPACE agenda. However, in the draft conference report, there were four bracketed paragraphs on militarization that had to be resolved at UNISPACE. They were among 15 paragraphs (dealing with other subjects as well) that were bracketed to indicate they had not been agreed upon earlier.

During the first week of the conference, 67 countries presented opening remarks, and all but four (including the US) mentioned militarization. Mr. Pahr attempted to establish a working group at the start of UNISPACE to deal with the four bracketed paragraphs on militarization. But the US objected to the idea unless all 15 bracketed paragraphs were given to the working group. And the Soviet Union objected because three committees already had been created to work out final language in the draft conference report. Thus the task of resolving this issue fell to the committees.

There was a feeling among other delegations, rightly or wrongly, that the US was trying to stifle debate on militarization of space. They argued that if the discussion were simply allowed to take place, the emotion-filled atmosphere would dissipate.

The first real debate on militarization took place on Monday of the second week, and the US commented at the start that it did not want to hinder debate but did not think agreement would be reached. After more than an hour's discussion, when the chairman of the committee and the other delegations thought agreement had been obtained on the first sentence of the paragraph under consideration, the chief US delegate at that meeting informed the chairman that he did not agree with any of the proposed wording. Later, he added that actually it was the ''concept'' to which he objected, not just the wording, and therefore there was no acceptable language.

The Soviet Union, which had been willing to accept the wording on military uses of space, was therefore in the position of appearing as a defender of the freedom of space, while the US was portrayed as a supporter of militarization. This was an unfortunate situation, since only the Soviet Union has an operational space weapons system.

Realizing that the committees were not going to reach agreement on wording for these paragraphs, Mr. Pahr once again broached the idea of a working group, and this time it was adopted. After a day and a half of meetings, three new paragraphs emerged expressing the concern of the international community about the possibility of an arms race in space and calling upon the UN to look into the matter. This was a partial victory for the US, which objected to the word ''militarization,'' since it includes all military activities (such as reconnaissance), while ''arms race'' is much narrower.

The question naturally arises as to why the US chose to put itself in such an unfavorable position on Monday night, since by Friday it had agreed to compromise wording. The term ''arms race'' instead of ''militarization'' could have been suggested at the earlier time. It is possible that no unified US position existed before Friday (rumors were rampant of deep division on this issue both within the US delegation and back in Washington). Or it might have been a matter of the US underestimating the level of concern that other nations have about militarization and expecting that, once everyone ''had it out of their system,'' the issue would go away. If so, this was a serious miscalculation.

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Using the approach it did, the US exasperated many of its friends, while allowing the country that has a significantly more militarily oriented space program to sit back and watch the US subject itself to charges of supporting the militarization of space. What the US gained with this tactic is not readily evident.

Even with the adoption of the three paragraphs developed in the working group , the issue of militarization clearly will not disappear. The Group of 77 (which is now composed of 120 countries) issued a position paper at UNISPACE calling for a ban on the testing, development, and deployment of all weapons in space - and calling upon the two major space powers to enter into early negotiations to prevent an arms race in space. (The Soviet Union has already introduced a draft treaty at the UN allegedly to ban ''all weapons'' from space, although it apparently would not affect either existing or planned ground- and air-based antisatellite systems. The Soviets have continued to test their ground-based system since they introduced the draft treaty.)

The US should take care not to assume that the issue will go away now that UNISPACE is over. The US stance at UNISPACE was that militarization properly should be discussed in the Committee on Disarmament. This argument was weakened by the fact that the US opposes creation of a working group on the subject in the CD on the grounds that such a move would be premature since no mandate has been suggested for the working group. It is to be hoped UNISPACE has provided enough information so that a mandate could be developed and a working group established to serve at least as a forum for further discussions of this topic.