U.S. seeks an “Outer Space free from conflict,” CSIS shortcomings and more


Readers may recall that, back in our 3 September 2021 blog item on space security, we highlighted a private sector and civil society letter calling for a ban on anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon testing:

The letter begins:

The undersigned urge the United Nations General Assembly to take up consideration of a kinetic [destructive] anti-satellite (ASAT) test ban treaty. The need for such a treaty is driven by very rapid growth in the number of satellites in orbit.

With the potential addition over the next ten years of as many as 100,000 active satellites to the over 7,600 already in orbit, new practices are urgently needed to stem the proliferation of space debris. In the signatories’ view:

A major step toward this end would be a kinetic ASAT test ban treaty.

Biden administration announces unilateral ASAT testing ban

We are extremely pleased to report that, on 18 April 2022, Vice President Kamala Harris — while at Vandeberg Space Force base — announced that

the United States commits not to conduct destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing…

She further stated

that the United States seeks to establish this as a new international norm for responsible behavior in space.

The USA is the first nation to make such a commitment, and the Vice President called on other nations to follow suit and to work together in establishing this as a norm, making the case that such efforts benefit all nations.

US rejects Trump designation of outer space as a war-fighting domain

The anti-ASAT testing pledge is stated to be the “first” initiative under a new US effort to preserve the “security and sustainability of space”.

The Trump administration had designated space as a “war-fighting domain” and created a new military branch, the Space Force, to seek dominance in it.

In a stark and welcome contrast, the Biden administration has declared:

Conflict or confrontation in outer space is not inevitable, and the United States seeks to ensure outer space remains free from conflict.

Former Disarmament Ambassador Paul Meyer, in a Globe and Mail commentary on these developments, observes:

This is a goal that all concerned states and non-governmental stakeholders should support, as it is a precondition for continuing to benefit from the use of space while ensuring that environment remains free from man-made threats.

He then goes on to outline a new UN diplomatic process, the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) for “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours,” which will hold its first substantive session in May:

All UN member states are free to participate. This would be an appropriate forum before which the United States could present its proposal and seek to gain support.

Background information for this session, available on the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs website, includes the Report of the Secretary-General on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours (A/76/77) as well as the views of member states, including Canada.

In its report, the Canadian government reiterates, albeit in somewhat qualified fashion, Canada’s longstanding support for a ban on the testing of debris-causing ASATs:

Canada views responsible behaviour as committing to not undertake development, testing and use of ASAT capabilities which can cause widespread debris.

Indeed, Canada supports discussions, in the context of the Conference on Disarmament, on a possible ban on testing and use of ASATs which cause space debris.

Since Canada’s submission predates the change in the US position, we should now expect a fulsome adoption of the goal of an ASAT ban norm.

In his article, Professor Meyer points out the significance of the US characterizing its decision not to conduct ASAT-missile testing as a “norm” of responsible behaviour:

Washington is indicating that it will be pursuing a politically, rather than legally, binding agreement with its fellow UN members.

Such an approach, Meyer notes, avoids lengthy and complicated treaty negotiations and, most notably, the domestic US requirement for treaty ratification in the US Senate.

In response to this step, the key instigators of the civil society letter calling for an anti-satellite (ASAT) test ban treaty — Aaron Boley and Michael Byers, Co-Directors, Outer Space Institute — issued a statement arguing that, under international law, such unilateral declarations can also carry legal import:

If made in clear and specific terms by an authority vested with the power to do so, they constitute legally binding commitments vis-à-vis all other states.

They go on to say:

Although we envisaged a multilateral treaty, treaties are not the only way in which international rules can be created.

We commend the United States for its unilateral declaration and call on other states to make their own declarations without delay.

Whither Canada?

Professor Meyer outlines a constructive role for Canada in moving from a unilateral US pledge to an “agreed-upon, multilateral norm of responsible behaviour in outer space”:

Canada, alongside other “middle powers,” can and should play a supporting role at next month’s OEWG meeting and in other forums to gain acceptance of this crucial restraint measure.

We call upon Canada to work with other “middle powers” and likeminded from across regional groupings, at the upcoming OEWG and in other appropriate forums, to build support for a ban on ASAT-missile testing as an agreed-upon norm of responsible behaviour in outer space.

For the full commentary by Paul Meyer, see Restraint in outer space benefits everyone (theglobeandmail.com, 25 April 2022).

For a timely civil society contribution to the upcoming deliberations of the UN Open Ended Working Group, see the submission by Canadian Pugwash Group by clicking here.

For an in-depth look at the issue, written in February 2022, prior to the new US policy stance, see What kinetic ASAT testing tells us about space security and governance (Jessica West, ploughshares.ca).


A year-old report just made public this week concludes that Canada’s spy agency needs to further improve its information-sharing practices with other relevant agencies.

The document, obtained through the access to information process, is the result of a behind-the-scenes review by two outside national security lawyers of how the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the national police force share information — or don’t.

Canadian Press journalist Jim Bronskill writes of the report’s key findings:

Information-sharing between intelligence officers and police needs an overhaul — and it could start with informing police of the reasons behind national security arrests.

In reaction to the report, University of Toronto professor Kent Roach, who studies national security and anti-terrorism law, commented:

The report recognizes that the RCMP officers are often kept in the dark by CSIS and this could affect the validity of the arrest.

He then touched on the larger problem of CSIS pursuing avenues short of actual prosecutions, in order to protect its tactics and methods:

Certainly there are legitimate and lawful alternatives to criminal prosecutions.

But I think from the public’s perspective, it’s really in the criminal prosecution where the most light is cast, both on how the state acted and also the actual danger, or lack of danger, that the accused presents.

The report appears to strongly reflect Professor Roach’s view in its finding that

It strikes us that there is no benefit to public safety to leave [CSIS’s] information unexploited when it could be used to enhance a national security criminal investigation.

They further conclude:

Also, [CSIS] has to accept that in litigation there is always a risk that some information will not be protected, but the benefit of assisting in the investigation and the eventual prosecution of persons who are threats to the country is worth that risk.

To this end, the report includes the rather startling recommendation that

CSIS obtain expert criminal law advice to better understand the risks and rewards of sharing information and to recognize when a crime has been committed. [emphasis added]

It also makes a more far-reaching observation about key attitudinal and cultural changes needed within CSIS:

there has to be a change in attitude and culture from viewing themselves as a traditional cold war intelligence agency to a modern intelligence agency that is actively managing threats to national security.

CSIS taking on some recommendations

Acknowledging that more could be done, CSIS spokesperson Keira Lawson indicated they were working on a “memorandum of understanding” with the RCMP to implement the recommendations “as appropriate”.

In a written commentary, Lawson specifically referenced “potential areas for legislative reforms” to address “intelligence and evidence issues”, language which seems to sidestep the report’s focus on the changes needed to internal CSIS procedures to enable effective prosecutions.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

The CSIS response is underwhelming at best and, at worst, seems to deliberately skirt a central message of the report — that CSIS must play a positive role in helping ensure national security cases can be successfully prosecuted.


When we last reported on “yet more problems” with reinstating the Iran nuclear deal, the issue was an Iranian demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO).

As the Washington Post has reported, along with expert commentators like Trita Parsi, the issue is largely a symbolic one:

the FTO designation is only one out of many ways that the IRGC is both sanctioned and classified as a terrorist organization.

However, as Jonathan Guyer wrote recently:

symbolism can be a powerful thing.

He continues:

To Iran, the designation is an affront. The IRGC is an organ of the Iranian state, and an FTO designation is strictly for terrorist groups that are non-state actors….

For Biden’s team, removing the designation may risk looking weak in the eyes of domestic American audiences who cheer militaristic policies toward Iran.

For a more in-depth look at the FTO designation, see Iran’s Revolutionary Guards don’t belong on the foreign terror list (Paul R. Pillar, responsiblestatecraft.org, 23 March 2022).

Weighing in firmly on the side of Washington successfully completing the negotiations is a group of 40 former government officials and leading non-proliferation experts from the US and Europe.

In an Open Letter they contrast the success of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the situation following the Trump pull-out in 2018:

The legacy of this strategic error can today be measured in the tons of enriched uranium Iran has since accumulated, including uranium enriched to near weapons-grade; in the thousands of advanced centrifuges it is spinning; and in the rapidly dwindling timeframe for Iran to reach a breakout capability.

In such circumstances, they argue that President Biden has “rightly identified” a mutual return by the US and Iran, to their respective commitments under the 2015 deal “as a necessary course correction.”

Now, in light of the current impasse, they outline two possible scenarios:

In one, the U.S. swiftly shows decisive leadership and requisite flexibility to resolve remaining issues of political (not nuclear) disagreement with Tehran.

In the other, the parties enter a state of corrosive stalemate, serving neither side’s interests, that risks devolving into a cycle of increased nuclear tension, inevitably countered by the further application of coercive tools.

The letter concludes:

Having come within touching distance, we urge President Biden and the Iranian leadership to demonstrate flexibility in tackling an issue of vital significance to the global nonproliferation regime and regional stability, and see these negotiations through to a successful conclusion.

For the full text of the letter and its list of signatories, click here.

US reaffirms that “mutual return” to JCPOA is in its interest

In a positive sign of American commitment to resolving outstanding issues, State Department spokesperson Ned Price on 26 April 2022 stated:

So there’s some distance yet to close. It’s unclear if we’re going to be able to get there, but it remains our assessment that mutually returning to the JCPOA would profoundly be in our interest.

And we’ll pursue that mutual return as long as it remains in our interest.

What about the regional dimension?

While there may remain considerable opposition in Washington to the Iran nuclear deal’s reinstatement, Arab Digest notes that key regional players, the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrain,

have somewhat grudgingly come around to the idea that a return of some form is probably better than no return at all.

In support of that view, they reference a State Department Media Note on the November 2021 meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council about the deal that states in part:

The [participants] underlined that enhanced regional dialogue and a return to mutual compliance with the JCPoA would benefit the entire Middle East, allow for more regional partnerships and economic exchange, with long-lasting implications for growth and the well-being of all people there, including in Iran.

For a more in-depth look at the fraught regional dimension in a non-paywalled article, see The Gulf States and the Iran Nuclear Deal: Between a Rock and a Hard Place (rusi.org, 29 November 2021).

Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Fellow Dr. Tobias Borck writes:

If the JCPOA is indeed revived, the Gulf states hope that Washington will appreciate their pro-agreement stance and consequently be more inclined to back them as they engage with Tehran to address their various concerns regarding regional security.


Time to build on Yemen’s truce

For an important update on prospects for the two-month truce leading to inclusive peace talks, see this new report from Crisis Group: Truce Test: The Huthis and Yemen’s War of Narratives (29 April 2022):

Diplomats will need both carrots and sticks to bring the Huthis in from the cold.

International stakeholders should establish a working group to make overtures to Sanaa and prepare for inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni talks to chart a way out of the conflict.


Another extremely timely and important offering from Crisis Group is their latest  Hold Your Fire! podcast, which confronts a key question: Is the Danger of a NATO-Russia War Growing? (29 April 2022).

Host Richard Atwood talks to Crisis Group expert Olga Oliker about Russia’s latest offensive in Ukraine’s east and south, how Western capitals have responded and how well they are balancing the need to support Ukraine while

minimising risks of a NATO-Russia war that could rapidly turn nuclear.

Click here for the full podcast.

In next week’s blog post, we will consider anew the diplomatic prospects for resolving the conflict, including the UN role, and examine recent Canadian government actions on sanctions and a unanimous parliamentary declaration on genocide in Ukraine.


Webinar, May 3 – What Ukraine tells us about nuclear deterrence and common security

May 3 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm

Click HERE to access full event information and register online

Event Summary: 

In the shadow of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, moderator Peggy Mason will explore with panelists Robin Collins and Cesar Jaramillo what the crisis may mean for nuclear disarmament goals, European security, NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence, and challenges to the UN and UN Charter framework itself.

Photo credit: Wikimedia images (Hubble telescope view)

Ceasefire.ca is a public outreach project of the Rideau Institute linking Canadians working together for peace.

Tags: Aaron Boley, CSIS and information sharing, Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), International Crisis Group (ICG), Iran nuclear deal, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Kinetic ASAT testing, Michael Byers, national security criminal prosecutions, Outer Space, Outer Space Institute, Paul Meyer, Professor Kent Roach, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), U.S. ASAT test ban norm, Ukraine, UN OEWG on reducing space threats, Yemen truce