Exploring the role of HCoC and other CBMs in the field of missiles

13 October 2021


This Virtual Side Event was organised on the Margins of the United Nations General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security exploring the role of HCoC and other Confidence Building Measures in the field of missiles. 



  • Amb. Marjolijn VAN DEELEN, Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, European External Action Service (EEAS), European Union 



  • Ms Emmanuelle MAITRE, Research Fellow, FRS 



  • Ms Tanvi KULKARNI, Policy Fellow, Asian Pacific Leadership Network 
  • Ms Almudena AZCARATE ORTEGA, Associate Researcher, UNIDIR  



  • Amb. Gustavo AINCHIL, Ambassador to Austria and Permanent Representative of Argentina to the International Organizations in Vienna, HCoC Chair 2021-2022 


Summary of the debates

Welcoming remarks

Amb. Marjolijn VAN DEELEN, EU Special Envoy for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, started by stressing that ballistic missile proliferation continues to be a serious concern to international peace and security, as reaffirmed in several UN Security Council Resolutions. Several regions of the world are engaged in a new arms race, creating security risks and geopolitical pressures. Despite this destabilising situation, there has been no legally binding agreement to stop ballistic missile proliferation, thereby compelling the international community to uphold and strengthen existing measures. To this end, the EU notably provided continuous diplomatic and financial support to the HCoC.

The HCoC: a successful confidence-building measure


Comparison between different active ballistic missile pre-notification agreements. Credits: FRS


Ms Emmanuelle MAITRE, Research Fellow, FRS, remarked that the Hague Code of Conduct is one of the few existing multilateral instruments aiming to prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles. This objective is paramount, and is reflected in the title of the Code. But the Code also comprises a set of confidence-building measures dealing with ballistic missiles as well as space launchers, to limit the risk of misinterpretation regarding these activities and therefore to regulate these weapons. These CBMs are noteworthy because of their multilateral framework, but they do not operate in a vacuum, and they deepen, expand and complement other measures adopted in the past concerning missiles and other strategic issues. For instance, two bilateral pre-notification regimes currently exist in parallel to the Code, with their own features. 

It is important therefore to explore the linkages between the Code and other confidence-building measures and to try to see what are its specificities, especially in the missile field, and to reflect about additional ways to bring transparency in the ballistic and space domains.

Dr Tanvi KULKARNI noted that CBMs have been designed to make conflicts less likely and manage crises. The term ‘CBM’ was first used in 1955 when the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution co-sponsored by the US (under the ‘Open Skies’ plan proposed by President Eisenhower) and the Soviet Union. This proposition highlighted at the beginning of the Cold War the conviction that transparency on military activities could decrease the risk of misunderstanding and conflict. Nuclear and missile-related CBMs never really emerged as a distinct conceptual category of CBMs. The nuclear and missile context was largely implicit in the CBMs concept that developed during the Cold War. CBMs as we know them today have been mostly developed in the context of the CSCE (later adopted under the OSCE), and focused on conventional weapons. These CBMs were concerned with missiles and other delivery systems directly or indirectly. By the end of the Cold War, the international community considered CBMs as an important element of soft law, non-legally binding measures with the ability of sustaining norms and of bringing transparency on activities. During and after this period, they were pursued in parallel to efforts to adopt legally-binding treaties. On strategic weapons, and especially missiles, most progresses have been bilateral and concerned the US-USSR dyad. The key CBMs among these includes the 1988 of a bilateral agreement between the two countries requiring each nation to notify the other party of any ballistic missile launch. While other measures did not focus specifically on these arsenals, they also contributed to limit the risk of misunderstanding and accidental escalation, through communication tools (hotlines) or conflict management instruments.

Since the end of the Cold War, diverse initiatives have emerged to bring transparency on strategic matters, with various membership, dialogue modalities, objectives, levels of restraints or verification mechanisms. Taking stock from this corpus, it could be observed that bilateral initiatives tend to be easier to adopt and implement, but multilateral measures are more efficient in raising confidence and strengthening behaviour norms, which may lead to the adoption of legally-binding norms in the future. The content of the measures, and especially the level of transparency is contingent upon states’ security interests. The observation of some dyads, for instance the India-Pakistan dyad, shows that framing a CBM regime is a long process, where tangible results are not always observable. More easily adopted in times of decreased tensions, they show their utility when relations are becoming more conflictual.

Ms Almudena AZCÁRATE ORTEGA recalled the importance of HCoC as a CBM regulating the peaceful use of space. While the instrument was initially designed for regulating missiles, its embedding in the space regulating environment is clearly framed with the mentioning of the three principal space conventions (see box). While it is soft law, the Code still encourages subscribing states to comply with the main legally binding instruments applicable to the space domain. It also contributes more concretely to the objectives of space security by requiring transparency on SLV policy, launch sites, launches and by inviting states to organize visits of their launch sites. The key aim here is to prevent the diversion of launching technologies for use in missile programmes. At the same time, in line with the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), the HCoC supports the enjoyment of space for all for peaceful activities.

Measures like the HCoC are particularly important in the face of lack of regulation on matters of space security elsewhere. The OST is very general and does not establish a lot of prohibitions. It has a general prohibition of “no nukes in space” (art. IV), but it does not say anything about the development of ballistic missiles, or their use in space beyond the limitations of art. IV. So while the HCoC is a soft law agreement, it serves as a key tool in maintaining the balance between promoting peaceful uses of space and reinforcing a norm against WMD delivery vehicle proliferation. It offers a framework of transparency and confidence, which can be conducive to enhanced cooperation and progress in the civilian space domain.

Finally, it was noted that it is possible to build on the experience of the Code to propose additional CBMs in these fields, noting that the space community recognizes the complementary between legally and non-legally binding measures (see UNIDIR Space Security Conference, September 2021). In particular, it emphasizes the importance of transparency and it finds a balance between focusing on a specific concern and taking into account the security imperatives of its subscribing states.


Amb. GUSTAVO AINCHIL, Ambassador to Austria and Permanent Representative of Argentina to the International Organizations in Vienna, HCoC Chair 2021-2022 concluded the session by noting the HCoC remains a unique instrument insofar as its vocation is to achieve universality. Thus, it provides a platform to create a common understanding of the risks linked to the proliferation of ballistic missiles. Outreach efforts are necessary today to convince states that are not currently subscribing to the Code that subscribing would increase their security or that their participation in the regime would matter even if they do not deploy missiles. With already 143 members, the HCoC is also a sort of “greenhouse” in which new initiatives and propositions may be discussed to ensure the relevance of the Code in the future. The success of such propositions would largely depend on the ability of participating states to build a climate of trust. Beyond the need to share confidence, additional CBMs and transparency measures will work if they are in the security interest of all states. It is therefore important to understand what common denominator can be found between parties and to frame an agenda for shared security and stability.

Research Papers

The HCoC and China

China is currently the main ballistic missile possessor and spacefaring nation which remains outside the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCoC). This can be explained by China’s traditional opacity regarding its deployment of strategic missiles, but also its exports of ballistic systems or technologies abroad. This absence is nonetheless problematic for a regime based on voluntary transparency and confidence-building which aims at universality.

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