Australian Antarctic Magazine - Issue 6: Autumn 2004

Cooperation and the Antarctic Treaty

Cooperation is synonymous with the Antarctic Treaty. It may sound glib, and to many whose life revolves around the Treaty the words roll off our tongues like a mantra. But the importance of cooperation within the Antarctic Treaty, and between the nations active in Antarctica, is as important today as it has ever been. It is hard to understate: without cooperation we would not have a Treaty, and without it we would not be able to do many of the things which we take for granted in Antarctica.

The need for cooperation between Antarctic nations emerged as post-war interest in Antarctica developed. Territorial claims had been established by seven nations, other nations were active in the region and some with territorial aspirations of their own. At the same time, significant scientific interest was emerging, particularly in the lead up to the ICSU's International Geophysical Year which was timed for 1957-58 to capitalise, among other things, on Antarctica as a place for measurement of sun spot activity. Scientific programs were planned by many nations throughout Antarctica, and there was a concern that territorial interests could interfere with the planning and conduct of the research. So the nations involved in preparations for the Antarctic components of the IGY agreed that for the duration of the program there would be freedom to conduct activities anywhere in Antarctica, provided they were done consistent with the scientific objectives of the IGY.

As we know, the IGY was enormously successful, in no small part because of the cooperation between nations in ensuring that political differences were set aside for the good of science of international importance. Recognising the enduring importance of being able to conduct research in Antarctica, it was proposed that the principles that had underscored the cooperation that characterised the IGY should be perpetuated by international agreement. The Antarctic Treaty, which was born from the IGY, made cooperation and international harmony central planks, as witnessed by the pre-ambular paragraphs as well as in several articles of the Treaty which cement cooperation as a core principle.

Article II of the Treaty provides for freedom of scientific research and cooperation between nations to make that possible. This commitment is implemented by Article III which provides for exchange of information on research plans, exchange of personnel between national programs and the exchange of results from research. It also encourages cooperative working relationships with the specialised agencies of the United Nations. The essential provisions of Articles VII and VIII of the Treaty provide for the appointment of observers to inspect activities in Antarctica and require cooperation so that observers can undertake their duties unencumbered by jurisdictional concerns. The Treaty goes on to provide for meetings of Parties in a consultative forum to discuss measures to further the Treaty's objectives – these meetings take their decisions on the basis of consensus, which is a great test of the willingness of Parties to accommodate differing view points.

A cornerstone of the Antarctic Treaty was the agreement embodied within Article IV to accommodate differences of view over sovereignty. Dealing with this issue required careful negotiation at the time of development of the Treaty and a high level of cooperation so that the Treaty could protect the differences of position. Of course, these differences have not gone away and the Treaty continues to protect the positions of Parties with an interest in the sovereignty question. The Parties continue to cooperate so that the regular business of Treaty meetings and the conduct of science can proceed without impediment. It is hard to imagine life in Antarctica had Parties not found harmony on this fundamental issue in 1959, or the consequences if the Parties were to now step off this well established foundation stone of Antarctic cooperation.

It is true that cooperation has not solved every issue confronting the Parties to the Antarctic Treaty, or to some of its related agreements such as CCAMLR. But what it has done is ensure enduring adherence to the Treaty system and commitment to work within it to achieve progress. The cooperative spirit has seen the Treaty embrace new Parties, work closely with other international regimes, broaden the debate to include non-government organisations, and forge links with industry and other interest groups. Commentators frequently observe that as a regime governing a whole continent, the Antarctic Treaty system is unique in its cooperative and peaceful achievement.

The day to day practice of cooperation in Antarctica is manifested in many ways – through science (joint programs), logistics (including shared use of resources), communications (such as advance exchange of expedition details), response in emergencies (mutual assistance for medical evacuations), and so on.

The multilateral cooperation found in the Antarctic Treaty system has also led to bilateral Antarctic cooperative agreements of which there are many. For its part, Australia has a number of bilateral agreements relating to the Antarctic, including with New Zealand and with France. Such agreements exist because of the cooperative environment fostered by the Treaty.

For those of us who work in the policy dimension, cooperation is a basic tool in a decision-making environment that relies on consensus. Progress within the Treaty does not rely on strength of numbers. Consensus is earned through shared aspirations, skilful diplomacy, patient negotiation and timely compromise. That sounds like a pretty fair definition of cooperation. And through this mechanism the Antarctic Treaty has established the framework for diplomatic and practical cooperation that has characterised work in the Antarctic, and will continue to do so.

Andrew Jackson, Manager, Antarctic and International Policy, AAD

This page was last modified on 25 May 2004.