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UN talks on space peace treaty fail to reach consensus

Talks to prevent an arms race in space took on new urgency with India's March 27 announcement that it destroyed a low-orbiting satellite with a missile.
Talks to prevent an arms race in space took on new urgency with India's March 27 announcement that it destroyed a low-orbiting satellite with a missile. AFP
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Geneva (AFP)

United Nations-backed talks to prevent an arms race in outer space ended without agreement on Friday, delivering another blow to global disarmament diplomacy.

Twenty-five nations -- including major space-faring powers such as China, Russia and the US -- held two weeks of negotiations that aimed to lay foundations for a treaty ensuring peace in space.

Diplomats meeting within the so-called Group of Governmental Experts were not able to reach consensus on a set of recommendations, said Brazil's ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Guilherme de Aguiar Patriota, who led the talks.

"We could not reach convergence," Patriota told reporters, adding that the goal may have been "too ambitious."

"We are working on very difficult grounds because of the sensitivities around these issues," he further said.

Space disarmament diplomacy has been deadlocked for more than a decade.

Russia and China have backed treaty language that seeks to prevent the deployment of certain types of military hardware in space.

The US, even before the election of President Donald Trump, has typically rejected that approach on grounds that it is extremely difficult to verify the military capabilities of hardware deployed in space.

Instead, the US has preferred language that focuses on prohibiting certain aggressive conduct in space.

- India satellite -

Aside from disagreements on the content of a possible treaty, the talks were also hampered by a grim disarmament climate, highlighted by Washington's decision in recent weeks to scrap a crucial nuclear weapons accord with Russia.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has drafted plans for a new "Space Force" on orders from Trump who has declared space a "war-fighting domain".

And while the talks were ongoing this week, India destroyed a satellite with a missile, boasting that it had joined the exclusive list of space powers.

Patriota said that rather than being harmful to the talks, the India test reinforced the need for some kind of treaty as it reminded nations "that shooting down an object in space is not expressly prohibited" under current international law.

India's actions challenged the narrative "that (the) existing regime is sufficient," he said.

But despite any impetus created by New Delhi, leaders in the world's space powers were "not particularly open to huge steps being taken" towards a treaty.

Friday marked the end of UN talks and there are no immediate plans for further negotiations, the Brazilian diplomat said.

He added, however, that "it was a great discussion" which may have "ripple effects" that could shape a future treaty.

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