Australia's role in the Antarctic Treaty system

A search light beam from the Aurora Australis illuminates the surrounding sea ice and ocean.
A new book marking 50 years of the Antarctic Treaty, to be published in late 2011, shines a light on Australia's involvement in the Antarctic Treaty system (Photo: Kristin Yates).

This year, to help mark 50 years of the Antarctic Treaty, a major book is being published to record Australia’s engagement in the Treaty. The preparation of this work has spanned two years and is the result of a collaboration between the University of Tasmania (UTAS), the Australian National University (ANU) and the Australian Antarctic Division. The content, however, is the work of many and brings together experienced practitioners and academic authors in a new history and assessment of Australia’s role in the Treaty. 

The book treads a dual path, interposing an historical narrative with thematic chapters that examine common threads throughout the 50-year period. The scene is set with a chapter telling the story of Australia’s early involvement in Antarctica and the steps leading to the proclamation of the Australian Antarctic Territory—events that were to lock Australia in as a key player. The narrative chapters build on this to relate Australia’s instrumental role in the Treaty negotiations and the early blossoming of the Treaty system. The story then discusses the consolidation of the Treaty system and the path it weaved through potentially disastrous destabilising challenges—external confrontation in the United Nations and internal friction over access to Antarctica’s living and non-living resources. New information is used to reveal what had been happening behind the scenes. 

The thematic chapters assess issues such as Australia’s sovereign interests as an Antarctic claimant state, the effect of domestic and international law, science as an enduring national interest, and the remarkable achievements of Australian Antarctic diplomacy. The book concludes with a discussion of Antarctica in Australian culture and a brief look towards the future. Human dimensions, evidenced by the contributions of key players, are drawn out in vignettes of explorers, scientists, administrators and diplomats. 

The book aims to complement existing assessments of the evolution of the Antarctic Treaty system by providing a forthright, frank and uniquely Australian perspective. And so it should, as Australia has had a lead role in many developments; famously, in the demise of the minerals convention, and sometimes with understated subtlety. Ultimately, in the Treaty’s consensus-based politics, all the Treaty Parties contribute to its successful development. But this book unashamedly explores what Australia has done, sometimes with remarkable diplomatic prowess and sometimes with less success, to influence those developments. 

The book is edited by Associate Professor Marcus Haward of UTAS and Professor Tom Griffiths of the ANU, both of whom are well-published in the fields of Antarctic law, politics and history. Vivid maps and previously unpublished images will be included in this hard cover volume. 

Australia and the Antarctic Treaty System: 50 Years of Influence will be published in late 2011 by the University of New South Wales Press.  

ANDREW JACKSON

Adviser to the ATCM 35 Steering Committee and Former General Manager, Strategies Branch, Australian Antarctic Division