Also known as Starfleet General Order 1, the Prime Directive is the most important law in Starfleet, a law of noninterference. Violation of the Directive is generally considered a felony offense that often carries severe punishment unless sufficient justification can be made for the violation.
The Directive states that members of Starfleet are not to interfere in the internal affairs of another species, especially the natural development of pre-warp civilizations, either by direct intervention, or technological revelation. When studying a planet's civilization, particularly during a planetary survey, the Prime Directive makes it clear that there is to be "No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations." Starfleet personnel are required to understand that allowing cultures to develop on their own is an important right and therefore must make any sacrifice to protect cultures from contamination, even at the cost of their own lives.
In the 23rd century, the Directive applied equally to both Starfleet and civilian personnel ., but by the 24th century, the Prime Directive is not enforced upon citizens of the Federation. Under the rules as defined in the Directive, a Starfleet crew is forbidden from removing citizens who have interfered with the culture of a world. Violating the directive can result in a court-martial for the offending Starfleet officer or crew.
In all, there are 47 sub-orders in the Prime Directive.
Originally the Directive was a shield for primitive worlds. If such a world was in danger, Starfleet had been known to order ships to save that world, provided it could be done without violating the Directive.
The Directive was later amended, prohibiting Starfleet officers from intervening even if non-intervention would result in the extinction of an entire species or the end of all life on a planet or star system. By the 24th century the Federation had begun applying the Prime Directive to warp-capable species, refusing to interfere in internal matters such as the Klingon Civil War.
There are two general exceptions to the Prime Directive:
The first is in cases where an extreme threat to the Federation exists. General Order 24 authorizes a Captain to order the destruction of an entire civilization under certain circumstances.The "Omega Directive" is triggered when a Starfleet vessel encounters an Omega molecule. When the Omega Directive is in force, the Prime Directive is rescinded. (Due to issues of security, only Starfleet officers ranked Captain and above are privy to knowledge of this directive.)
The second is in the event that a protected civilization has already been exposed to the knowledge of superior technologies and off-world civilizations. In these cases, Starfleet officers often attempted to repair the damage caused by either inadvertent or deliberate exposure.
Some Starfleet Captains, including James T. Kirk, have noted that the Prime Directive only applies to living growing civilizations and have overlooked the directive where it has been more convenient to do so, particularly in cases where societies have been enslaved or in a state of total stagnation (also known as an arrested culture).
That position fell out of favor by the 24th century. Captain Kathryn Janeway once noted that 23rd century Starfleet officers were "a little too slow to invoke the Prime Directive".
The Starfleet also had no qualms about dealing openly with civilizations that, while possessing the requisite knowledge of advanced technology, choose not to make use of it. An example of such a culture would be the Ba'ku. Though the Ba'ku were initially treated as "protected" by the Prime Directive (Admiral Dougherty's and the Son'a's machinations aside) due to the appearance that they were a pre-warp culture, it later became known that they in fact were not.
- There have been instances where the Federation itself has apparently "forgotten" about the Prime Directive. One such was when Captain Kirk was ordered to open negotiations with the Capellans for a valuable ore, despite the culture being a pre-warp civilization. Another was when Kirk was ordered to organize the defense of the planet Organia, despite the appearance that the inhabitants were a pre-warp civilization. It could be argued, however, that with the impending Klingon invasion of the planet, that the Directive was rendered moot at that point.
- The Prime Directive was instigated long after Earth launched the Friendship 1 probe in 2067. (: "") Indeed, the Directive was not yet in force as late as the 2160s, when the crew of the starship Horizon left behind books on technology and culture that radically altered the course of civilization on the planet Sigma Iotia II. (: "")
- While the Prime Directive was not officially formulated until after the 2160s, the fundamental principles were an important part of Earth Starfleet procedures as early as 2152. (: "")
- A similar order, known as the Temporal Prime Directive, was also eventually created to prohibit giving individuals in/from the past information about their future. Captain Kirk has a record of seventeen temporal violations. Admiral Janeway tells her younger self that it was best to 'just ignore' the Temporal Prime Directive. (: "") The Temporal Prime Directive was first mentioned by Braxton in : "", implying that it was created sometime between the 24th and 29th centuries. However, subsequent episodes (including : "") suggested that it had already been created during the 24th century, at the latest.
- Even though the inhabitants of Kolarus III were of a pre-warp civilization, an away team including Captain Picard, Lt Cmdr Data and Lt Cmdr Worf visited the planet in 2379 without making any attempt to integrate themselves into the planet's society (i.e. surgical alterations) and taking advanced technology such as the Argo. Such actions would have been a clear violation of the Prime Directive but no apparent action was taken against Picard by Starfleet Command. (Star Trek Nemesis)
- Warp capability does not provide a "blank cheque", so to speak—even with a warp-capable species, Starfleet is reluctant to interfere. Captain Janeway is initially reluctant to help an android race to procreate despite their obvious advanced technology. (: "") She also refuses to provide the warp capable Kazon with replicator technology or allow them access to the Caretaker's array on the grounds that it would "disrupt the balance of power in this [Delta] Quadrant." (: "")
- Precedents exist for not allowing other species to interfere with the development of pre-warp cultures. Although the Ferengi have not adopted the Prime Directive, USS Voyager prevents two of them from posing as gods to a pre-warp civilization. Lt. Commander Tuvok justifies this by pointing out that Starfleet bears some responsibility for their presence on the other side of the erratic Barzan Wormhole. (: ""; : "")
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