Liability for environmental emergencies in Antarctica

Rules governing who is liable for preventing and dealing with oil spills, disease introductions and other ‘environmental emergencies’ in Antarctica were set at this year’s 28th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Stockholm, concluding 12 years of complex negotiations.

The adoption of a new Annex (Annex VI) to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty on ‘liability arising from environmental emergencies’ is the most significant addition to the Antarctic Treaty regime since the Protocol was adopted in 1991.

The Annex applies to environmental emergencies arising from scientific research, tourism and other activities in the Antarctic Treaty area, such as logistic (shipping and aircraft) support. The aim of the Annex is to stipulate – before anything goes wrong – who could be held responsible for cleaning up after an environmental emergency, and the legal avenues to respond to disaster. It also allows compensation to be claimed from the polluter if someone else has to clean up.

The Annex is the first step in establishing a comprehensive regime of liability for environmental damage in Antarctica; a requirement of Treaty Parties under Article 16 of the Madrid Protocol. Within the next five years Parties will have a time-frame for resuming negotiations to elaborate further rules and procedures.

Meanwhile, Treaty Parties will make the new rules effective within their own domestic laws. Australia, for instance, will require Australian operators to establish preventative measures and contingency plans and respond to any environmental emergencies arising from their activities.

The next Treaty meeting will be hosted by the United Kingdom in Edinburgh in June 2006.

Stephen Powell, Antarctic and International Policy, AAD