Explainer: Keeping conflict on ice with the Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty protects the continent from competing interests. AAP

This year marks the 50th year of the Antarctic Treaty, a visionary document that for the first time set out a vision for an entire continent based on peace, science and co-operation.

So how does it hold up today?

Why was the Antarctic Treaty formed?

The Antarctic Treaty came into being on June 23, 1961. Its 12 original signatories were Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom (the seven countries that have claims to territory in Antarctica); and the USA, the Soviet Union, Japan, South Africa, and Belgium.

The genesis of the Treaty had a number of intertwining threads.

The Antarctic Treaty has 48 signatories. Alan R. Light/flickr

There were Cold War tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union, who held mutual suspicion of each other’s intentions in the Antarctic region. Both countries had asserted their right to claim any or all of Antarctica. There were also overlapping territorial claims ofthe UK, Chile and Argentina, and the seperate claims of Australia, France, New Zealand and Norway.

A growing sense began to form that some form of international stewardship of the region could defuse potential conflict.

The International Geophysical Year provided a concrete platform for international collaboration in scientific research in the Antarctic. The IGY ran from July 1957 to December 1958 and all the countries which participated in IGY’s scientific research in Antarctica ended up negotiating the Antarctic Treaty.

What are its central features?

The Antarctic Treaty is elegantly simple, comprising only 14 Articles, but it established a number of significant global precedents.

The Treaty required that Antarctica “be used for peaceful purposes only” and prohibited the establishment of military bases, testing of weapons and military manoeuvres on the continent.

It was the first international treaty to prohibit nuclear explosions and the disposal of nuclear waste.

Heralding the success of the International Geophysical Year, the Treaty guaranteed “freedom of scientific investigation” and established that scientific research plans and personnel be exchanged, and “scientific observations and results be made freely available”.

Antarctica is a haven for science. SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget/flickr

Perhaps the most novel aspect of the Treaty was the way it dealt with territorial claims in Antarctica.

Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty effectively neutralised potential disputes over sovereignty by providing that nothing in the Treaty could be interpreted as a renunciation of a previously asserted right or claim to territorial sovereignty; nor diminish any basis of a claim; nor prejudice any Party’s recognition or non-recognition of a claim.

It also ensured that nothing done while the Treaty is in force could constitute “a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim … or creating any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica”.

By doing these things, Article IV effectively froze the Antarctic territorial status quo: no new claims; no expansion of claims; no diminishing of claims; no reduction of claims and no prejudice to any nation’s position on sovereignty.

The Treaty also established a mechanism for parties to meet to further the objectives of the Treaty, and it provided that any member of the United Nations could join the Treaty.

What is Australia’s role?

The Antarctic Treaty has grown from its original 12 members and now has 48 signatories. 28 of these are consultative parties which meet annually to make decisions about the governance of Antarctica.

Australia is one of these parties. To achieve the status of consultative party, which gives the country a right to make decisions in Antarctic Treaty meetings, a country must demonstrate its has interest in Antarctica by conducting substantial research there.

Australia conducts extensive research both on and off the Antarctic continent. AAP

Australia has an extensive research program in Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean, especially in the east Antarctic.

Australia’s Antarctic program is lead by the Australian Antarctic Division, but includes many researchers and collaborators from universities and research institutions from Australia and around the globe.

This research is conducted on the icy continent itself, as well as across the Southern Ocean. Australia’s current research priorities for Antarctic science include climate science and climate change; ecosystem studies; conservation and environmental protection.

Why is it important?

The Antarctic Treaty covers a huge sector of the globe – the entire Antarctic continent and its surrounding waters below 60 degrees South.

By making this area a demilitarised zone, by defusing global superpower tensions, and by setting aside disputes over sovereignty in the Antarctic, the Treaty provides a zone of peace and cooperation in a region close, and strategically important, to Australia.

The Treaty also provides an effective framework for conducting globally significant science important to the future of the planet.

Is Australia fulfilling its responsibilities in Antarctica? ANU’s Neil T. M. Hamilton says we aren’t.