Australia and the Antarctic Treaty System

A Twin Otter flies over flags, planted in the ice, of countries participating in a geophysical research project.
The Antarctic Treaty system supports scientific collaboration in Antarctica. Here a Twin Otter flies over flags of countries participating in a geophysical research project. (Photo: BAS)
Members of Treaty Parties meeting in a large building decorated with Treaty countries' flags.

Activities in Antarctica and its surrounding seas are governed by a unique set of agreements between nations known as the Antarctic Treaty system. The Antarctic Treaty system is made up of four major international agreements:

These agreements are legally binding and purpose-built for the unique geographical, environmental and political characteristics of the Antarctic and form a robust international governance framework for the region. Legal obligations apply to all countries signatory to the agreements. The Antarctic Treaty system is a global achievement and has been a hallmark of international cooperation for more than 50 years.

Australia was one of 12 original Parties to the Antarctic Treaty. Many countries have acceded to the Treaty since it was signed in 1959. All countries with an active interest in Antarctica are Parties to the Antarctic Treaty. Parties meet annually at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), in conjunction with the Committee for Environmental Protection. Australia held the very first ATCM in Canberra in July 1961. In 2012 Australia hosted the 35th ATCM in Hobart.

The Antarctic Treaty puts in place principles for the governance of the region including: freedom of scientific investigation and the exchange of scientific findings, non-militarisation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and accommodating the positions of all Parties on issues of sovereignty.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty comprehensively protects Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. Under the Environmental Protocol, mineral resource exploration, mining and oil drilling is banned indefinitely and the environment must be a fundamental consideration in the planning and conduct of all activities in Antarctica. The Protocol also provides for information exchange and a system of inspection.

Australia is also an original party to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, and Hobart hosts its headquarters and the annual meetings of its Commission and Scientific Committee. The Convention’s objective is the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, where the definition of conservation includes rational use. The Convention was the first international agreement to apply an ecosystem approach to marine living resources conservation.

Australia works closely with fellow Antarctic Treaty parties to ensure the effective governance of the region, to undertake important scientific research, and to conserve and protect Antarctica’s unique environment.

Australia has strong and longstanding interests in Antarctica which are protected by the Antarctic Treaty system. The Antarctic Treaty system maintains Antarctica’s freedom from strategic or political confrontation, protects its unique environment, and safeguards our sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Learn more about the Madrid Protocol, the Committee for Environmental Protection and the Australian Antarctic Division’s environmental research in the video below.

[Video]

Protecting Antarctica

Video transcript

Australian Antarctic Division Senior Environmental Policy Officer Ewan McIvor

Since the Treaty was signed in 1959 there was increasing recognition amongst the parties of the need to establish measures to protect the Antarctic environment. They all came to a head in 1991 when the Antarctic Treaty parties signed the Madrid protocol and that’s really the fundamental international frame-work for protecting the Antarctic environment.

It designates Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. It bans mining importantly it basically requires that care for the environment is a fundamental consideration in all activities that are planned and conducted in Antarctica.

The Committee for Environment Protection or the CEP was established by the Madrid protocol. So the CEP is the main environmental advisory body under the Antarctic Treaty. It develops and provides advice to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and Antarctic Treaty parties on how to achieve those environmental objectives.

The CEP is comprised of representatives from each of the 35 countries that are a party to the protocol and it also includes expert advisers from various other international organisations with environmental, scientific and technical expertise.

So there’s a number of checks and balances that assist - a process to exchange information annually, that’s made publicly available, on how countries are meeting their obligations under the Madrid protocol. And then there is also a system of conducting inspections under the Treaty and the Madrid Protocol. So generally countries operating in Antarctica have a good understanding of what other countries are doing including their environmental practices.

Australian Antarctic Division Program Leader Dr Martin Riddle

The research that we do is to support Australia’s efforts to protect the Antarctic environment and to feed into the Antarctic treaty system’s Committee for Environmental Protection.

Our key priorities are to establish an observing system for identifying change in the Antarctic environment and the ecosystems and to attribute that change, to separate change that might be natural variability from that caused by the presence of people in the Antarctic, from that change that might be a consequence of global processes such as climate change or ocean acidification.

Second priority is to provide the scientific foundation for a truly representative, adequate and comprehensive system of protected areas for the Antarctic under the environmental protocol.

To provide the scientific foundation requires understanding what values we are trying to protect these include biodiversity, the special geology, special land formations, even the aesthetic and wilderness values of the Antarctic.

Our third priority is to prevent, mitigate and remediate impacts caused by people there. Particular priorities for us are the risk of introduced non-native species and remediating contaminated sites. We’ve been undertaking research to develop in-situ remediation technologies.

The Antarctic Treaty Meeting has a very important role in sharing information. Different parties develop expertise in different areas of science and technology for protecting the Antarctic environment. So if one party has developed some technique that works we share that, we don’t repeat the research to ensure that all parties and particular the environment gets the benefit of that research.

[end transcript]