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Satellite Monitoring: French Proposal

Volume 417: debated on Monday 9 February 1981

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their attitude to the French proposal that the United Nations should have an international control system in outer space to monitor troop movements and war preparations.

My Lords, the Government view the French proposal as an interesting one. We look forward to the report of the United Nations group of experts which has been attempting to work out the details of such a scheme, including costs.

My Lords, is it not the case that the United Nations General Assembly endorsed this proposal in 1978? Is it not the case that the USA and the USSR now have their surveillance satellites reporting on each other's territory, and would it not be much better to have a United Nations surveillance, the information from which could be known internationally and might aid verification of international conventions outlawing certain weapons and facilitate further disarmament?

My Lords, I do not think the United Nations could have endorsed this proposal in 1978 because it was not in fact made until 1979. However, the general tenor of the noble Lord's remarks, along the lines that this might be a useful proposal to agree, is worth considering, and I can tell the noble Lord that we look forward to the report of the group of experts to which I referred.

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his correction, may I ask him this further question: Might this not be a precursor to a United Nations peace-keeping force in outer space, where four-fifths of the satellites are now for military purposes and are threatening conflict?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is rushing me on a bit. I would prefer to wait for the report of the committee of experts before taking this matter the further several stages which the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord when he is expecting the report that he has mentioned? How long will it take before we get it?

My Lords, I do not have the note in front of me but I recall, I think, that the report of the group of experts is expected before the end of this year.

My Lords, is it not the case that the report is to be presented by June for consideration by the United Nations General Assembly?

My Lords, the noble Lord, as always, is very well informed in these matters, and I feel sure he is right.

My Lords, could my noble friend say whether the report will put a costing on this project, and can we be sure that all the other members of the United Nations will contribute to the cost?

My Lords, it is too early to say who will contribute to the costs of this project, but I can say that the report of the group of experts will include an estimate of the likely costs.

My Lords, is it not true that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, is quite wrong in saying that the majority of satellites have military purposes, and that the real truth of the matter is that the whole space around this earth is being slowly filled with small bits of satellite rubbish which now serve no purpose whatever and will some day have to be swept up?

My Lords, it is true, of course, that many of the satellites circling our earth are in fact spent and now serve no useful purpose. As for the noble Viscount's earlier point as to the percentage of satellites used for military or civilian purposes, again I do not have the precise figures in front of me, but I should perhaps say that many satellites—like some communications satellites, for example—in fact serve both military and civilian purposes.