Antarctic Treaty turns 60 with question mark over its future

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For six decades Antarctica has been governed by the Antarctic Treaty, a suite of international compacts signed in Washington DC in 1959 that expires in 2048. The anniversary offers a milestone for pondering the evident success of the treaty and its chances of surviving almost three more decades.

The signatories were the 12 countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. They were: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States and Soviet Union. The treaty entered into force in 1961 and now has 53 partners.

Key provisions of the Antarctic Treaty include a freeze on territorial claims; promotion of scientific research; demilitarization and a ban on nuclear weapons testing. The partner countries gather yearly at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) to assess developments and argue about protocols and guidelines to tweak the functioning of the system. The level of cooperation between treaty partners, many with competing geopolitical and economic interests, is widely described as remarkable.

The cooperation sometimes fails. Decisions on Antarctica require a consensus among the partners, which has confounded efforts to pass some regulations. ATCM’s Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities of 1988 did not enter into force. The partners were successful, however, in bringing into force the 1991-1998 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol). Article Seven of the Protocol says: “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.”

Several partner and non-countries are known to have designs on the presumed mineral and hydrocarbon riches under Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The Madrid Protocol and economics – the prohibitive cost of extraction and transportation – appear to be holding them in check.

Looking ahead, climate change and technological advances that lower costs promise to increase pressure on the treaty before it expires, and potentially dismantle it in 2048.

In 60 years the provisions of the treaty have not been challenged openly, but national strategic needs and attitudes change: treaties are sometimes broken. Also, there are no guarantees that any of the 145 countries outside the Antarctic will continue to accept rules made by just 53.

Antarctic Treaty Secretariat

Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (The Madrid Protocol) (Australian Govt.)

The Future of Antarctica: Conflict or Consensus? (Australian Inst. of International Affairs Dec 2015)

Who Will Control the Antarctic? (Fair Observer Jan 2013)

Date written/update: 2019-05-03