What's In Blue

Vote on Draft Resolution on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Outer Space*

Tomorrow afternoon (24 April), the Security Council is scheduled to vote on a draft resolution on weapons of mass destruction in outer space, which was prepared by Japan and the US. Russia has proposed an amendment to the text. In accordance with rule 33 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, which states that amendments “shall have precedence in the order named over all principal motions and draft resolutions”, the Council will first vote on the Russian amendment before proceeding to vote on the whole draft resolution.


During the 1960s and 1970s, several multilateral agreements were adopted to prevent the weaponisation of outer space in relation to nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These agreements include the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), the Outer Space Treaty (1967), and the Moon Agreement (1979). Notably, the Outer Space Treaty prohibits states parties from placing nuclear weapons or any other WMD in orbit, on celestial bodies, or stationing them in outer space in any other manner.

At its first special session devoted to disarmament in 1978, the General Assembly adopted a final document calling for measures to be taken and appropriate international negotiations held, in accordance with the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty, to prevent an arms race in outer space. By 1981, member states had expressed concern in the General Assembly that “rapid advances in science and technology had made the extension of the arms race into outer space a real possibility, and that new kinds of weapons were still being developed despite the existence of international agreements”, according to the UN Yearbook.

That same year, the General Assembly adopted two resolutions that would come to define discussions on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). One of the resolutions (A/RES/36/97), sponsored by members of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), acknowledged that “further measures [were] needed to prevent outer space from becoming an area of military confrontation”. In this regard, it requested the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which had been created in 1979 as the single multilateral disarmament negotiation forum, to consider the question of negotiating effective and verifiable agreements aimed at prohibiting anti-satellite systems. The other resolution (A/RES/36/99), sponsored by members of the Eastern European States (EES) regional group, requested the CD to launch negotiations on a draft treaty submitted by the Soviet Union on the prohibition of the stationing of weapons of any kind in outer space.

In 1982, the General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/37/83, calling on the CD to establish an ad hoc working group on PAROS “with a view to undertaking negotiations for the conclusion of an agreement or agreements, as appropriate, to prevent an arms race in outer space”. However, disagreements over the group’s mandate delayed its creation. While members of the EES regional group and the Non-Aligned Movement at the CD—the Group of 21—sought a negotiating mandate for the committee, Western members preferred a mandate that would first discuss questions related to PAROS, seeing this as a preliminary step before entering into more concrete negotiations.

In 1985, CD members agreed to form an ad hoc committee to examine “as a first step” issues relevant to PAROS. The committee operated until 1994, and despite extensive efforts, persistent disagreements among its members hindered its progress. According to the committee’s 1994 report, members of the Group of 21 and China argued that existing legal instruments were inadequate to prevent an arms race in outer space. Some Western members, however, maintained that existing multilateral treaties and the UN Charter provided “an equitable, practical, balanced and extensive legal system for ensuring the use of outer space for peaceful purposes”. Some of these countries also posited that there was no arms race in outer space, thus questioning the need for new international legally binding agreements on PAROS.

In 2008, China and Russia submitted a joint proposal to the CD for a draft treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). The proposal included fourteen articles to be considered as part of a legally binding instrument. Key provisions of the draft treaty included commitments by states parties “not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons” and “not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects”. Notably, the draft treaty on PPWT attempted to define critical terms such as “outer space”, “weapon”, and “use of force”, in ways that some states found problematic. China and Russia submitted an updated draft of the PPWT to the CD in 2014.

Several Western states have expressed objections to the draft treaty on PPWT. In a note verbale dated 2 August 2018, the US articulated its concerns regarding the draft treaty’s feasibility and implications, noting that “given the dual-use nature of some space systems, it is not possible to craft a definition of a ‘weapon in outer space’ that would satisfy everyone’s concerns and not unduly or unfairly constrain civil or commercial space activities”. It also argued that “no space arms control treaty can be verified because most space systems are dual-use and on-orbit inspections for verification purposes are not feasible”. Further, the US pointed out that “existing international legal obligations, as reflected in the UN Charter, prohibit the use of force or the threat of force against another state’s outer space objects, subject to the exceptions of the use of force in self-defence and as authorized by the UN Security Council”.

In recent years, diverging opinions on the necessity of international legally binding instruments to prevent an arms race in outer space have continued to be a point of contention in the General Assembly. Last year, the General Assembly adopted separate resolutions establishing two open-ended working groups related to PAROS. Resolution A/RES/78/20, sponsored by the UK, created a new OEWG to continue previous deliberations on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours, while resolution A/RES/78/238, tabled by Russia, decided to establish an OEWG to resume the work of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) upon its termination. The GGE was established in 2017 to “consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on [PAROS], including, inter alia, on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space”. Several delegations at the First Committee expressed concern that these parallel processes might lead to increased polarisation and fragmentation of efforts to maintain space security.

In February, the US accused Russia of developing space-based capabilities to attack satellites using nuclear weapons. At the Security Council’s high-level briefing on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, initiated by Japan on 18 March, US Permanent Representative to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield stressed that “any placement of nuclear weapons into orbit around the Earth would be unprecedented, dangerous and unacceptable”. She announced that the US and Japan had put forward a draft resolution reaffirming state parties’ obligations under Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty.

Moscow has denied the US allegations. In a message to the Federal Assembly on 29 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the accusations as “unfounded”, adding that the US was seeking to “drag [Moscow] into negotiations on their own terms, which are beneficial exclusively to the US”.


The negotiations on the draft resolution were contentious. Japan and the US circulated a first draft of the resolution on 14 March. After two rounds of in-person negotiations, extensive bilateral discussions, and three revised drafts, a fourth version of the draft was put under silence on 9 April until 11 April. Silence was broken by China and Russia. Following the silence break, the co-penholders engaged bilaterally with members over several days with the aim of resolving a number of outstanding issues. On 18 April, the co-penholders placed a slightly amended draft in blue. The following day, Russia placed its own draft amendment to the resolution in blue.

The initial draft underlined the importance of the Outer Space Treaty, affirming states parties’ obligations not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of WMD, install such weapons on celestial bodies or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner. The draft also called on states not to develop nuclear weapons or any other kind of WMD specifically designed to be placed in orbit around the Earth. It urged member states to carry out activities in the exploration and use of outer space in accordance with international law, including the UN Charter.

During the negotiations, the co-penholders incorporated a range of elements proposed by various Council members. These elements consisted primarily of agreed language from multilateral treaties and General Assembly resolutions and documents.

It seems that one of the most difficult aspects of the negotiations pertained to the question of legally binding multilateral agreements on PAROS and the prohibition of the placement of weapons of any kind in outer space. When breaking silence on 11 April, China and Russia apparently argued that their concerns had not been adequately addressed by the co-penholders. Russia proposed an operative paragraph calling on all states to take urgent measures to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space and the threat or use of force in outer space, from space against Earth and from Earth against objects in outer space, as well as to seek through negotiations the early elaboration of appropriate, reliably verifiable, legally binding, multilateral agreements. Russia later formalised this proposal as an amendment to the draft resolution. It seems that the co-penholders sought to find a compromise by including an operative paragraph emphasising the necessity of further measures, including both political commitments and legally binding instruments, with appropriate and effective provisions for verification, to prevent an arms race in outer space.

At the time of writing, it appeared unlikely that the Russian-proposed draft amendment would garner the requisite support. Absent a veto by a permanent member, a draft amendment requires nine affirmative votes to be adopted. Resolution A/RES/78/238, which contains an operative paragraph identical to Russia’s proposed draft amendment, was adopted by the First Committee on 31 October 2023. It received 122 votes in favour, 49 votes against, and seven abstentions. Among Security Council members, seven voted in favour of the resolution (Algeria, China, Ecuador, Guyana, Mozambique, Russia, Sierra Leone) and seven voted against it (France, Japan, Malta, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, the UK, and the US), while Switzerland abstained.

In its explanation of vote, the US, speaking also on behalf of France and the UK, criticised Russia for attempting to “lock [the General Assembly] into the same stagnant debate that has not made progress since 1978”, arguing that member states should take a broad approach to PAROS, including the combination of binding and non-binding norms, rather than “rushing to negotiate a legally binding instrument on no solid ground”.

In contrast, resolution A/RES/78/20, titled “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours”, which advocates for a combination of legally binding obligations and political commitments to advance PAROS, was adopted by the First Committee on 31 October 2023 with 166 votes in favour, nine votes against, and five abstentions. Among Council members, China and Russia voted against the resolution, while the remaining 13 members voted in favour of it.

While it appears that the draft resolution in blue will attain the requisite support for adoption, it remains unclear, at the time of writing, whether China or Russia will cast a negative vote, particularly if the Russian draft amendment fails to be adopted. The co-penholders have opened the draft resolution in blue for co-sponsorship by the wider UN membership.


*Post-script: The draft amendment, which was proposed by China and Russia, failed to be adopted because it did not garner the requisite support. It received seven votes in favour (Algeria, China, Ecuador, Guyana, Mozambique, Russia, and Sierra Leone), seven votes against (France, Japan, Malta, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, the UK, and the US), and one abstention (Switzerland).

The draft resolution (S/2024/302) prepared by Japan and the US failed to be adopted owing to a veto cast by Russia. All other members—except China, which abstained—voted in favour of the text. The draft resolution was co-sponsored by 65 member states.

Following the vote, Russia announced its intention to put forward a draft resolution on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.

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