The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty is one of the most successful and succinct treaties in international law.

At the height of the cold war,  12 countries agreed to make a continent with no wars and no commercial activity – to protect it as an area for science. These countries were Argentina, Australia, Belgium Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US.

The treaty has stood the test of time. No country has tried to set up a non-scientific presence in Antarctica, and another 41 countries have signed up to the treaty. It has preserved Antarctica as a unique area for science, where you can learn the history of the world by drilling down through the ice. It is the planet’s dedicated science laboratory.

One extraordinary thing about the treaty is how short it is. The TPPA is 6,000 or so pages. The Antarctic Treaty is only 12 pages long. They must have kept the lawyers away from it. The later environmental protocol is much long at 50 pages (and smaller font!)

It does three main things:

  1. Established that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only

  2. Mandates freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end

  3. Requires scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available

All countries have effectively put aside (but not dismissed) their territorial claims. And they have agreed that all facilities are open to inspection by any other country. Nominated observers have complete freedom of access.

If the treaty had never been agreed back in the late 1950s, Antarctica might be a very different place today. Rather than a continent open to anyone, it may have become a land closed to the territorial claimants only.  It was the first arms control agreement of the cold war.

The summary of the main articles is:

  • Article 1 – The area is to be used for peaceful purposes only; military activity, such as weapons testing, is prohibited but military personnel and equipment may be used for scientific research or any other peaceful purpose;
  • Article 2 – Freedom of scientific investigations and cooperation shall continue;
  • Article 3 – Free exchange of information and personnel in cooperation with the United Nations and other international agencies;
  • Article 4 – The treaty does not recognize, dispute, nor establish territorial sovereignty claims; no new claims shall be asserted while the treaty is in force;
  • Article 5 – The treaty prohibits nuclear explosions or disposal of radioactive wastes;
  • Article 6 – Includes under the treaty all land and ice shelves but not the surrounding waters south of 60 degrees 00 minutes south;
  • Article 7 – Treaty-state observers have free access, including aerial observation, to any area and may inspect all stations, installations, and equipment; advance notice of all activities and of the introduction of military personnel must be given;
  • Article 8 – Allows for good jurisdiction over observers and scientists by their own states;
  • Article 9 – Frequent consultative meetings take place among member nations;
  • Article 10 – All treaty states will discourage activities by any country in Antarctica that are contrary to the treaty;
  • Article 11 – All disputes to be settled peacefully by the parties concerned or, ultimately, by the International Court of Justice;

It is a unique agreement which covers 10% of the world’s land surface and 10% of its oceans.

The US State Department has background on the initial meeting:

By the 1950s, seven nations — Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom — claimed territorial sovereignty over areas of Antarctica. Claims of Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom overlapped. Eight other nations — the United States, the Soviet Union, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Japan, and South Africa — had engaged in exploration but had put forward no specific claims. The United States did not recognize the claims of other governments and reserved the right to assert claims. The Soviet Union took a similar position.

Activities in the Antarctic had generally been conducted peacefully and cooperatively. Yet the possibility that exploitable economic resources might be found meant the possibility of future rivalry for their control. Moreover, isolated and uninhabited, the continent might at some time become a potential site for deploying nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, international scientific associations were able to work out arrangements for effective cooperation. In 1956 and 1957, for example, American meteorologists “wintered over” at the Soviet post Mirnyy, while Soviet meteorologists “wintered over” at Little America. These cooperative activities culminated in the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958 (IGY), a joint scientific effort by 12 nations — Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States — to conduct studies of the Earth and its cosmic environment.

In the years after World War II, as interest grew in keeping the continent from becoming militarized, there began diplomatic discussion of the possibility of formalizing a demilitarization arrangement. On May 3, 1958, the United States proposed to the other 11 nations participating in the IGY that a conference be held, based on the points of agreement that had been reached in informal discussions:

(1) that the legal status quo of the Antarctic Continent remain unchanged;
(2) that scientific cooperation continue;
(3) that the continent be used for peaceful purposes only.

All 11 nations accepted the U.S. invitation. The Washington Conference on Antarctica met from October 15 to December 1, 1959. No insurmountable conflicts or issues divided the conference, and negotiations culminated in a treaty signed by all 12 nations on December 1, 1959.

As I said at the beginning, few treaties have been as successful as The Antarctic Treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty

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