Evolution of the Antarctic Treaty System

A Twin Otter flies over flags of countries participating in Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province project.
The Antarctic Treaty System supports scientific collaboration in Antarctica. Here a Twin Otter flies over flags of countries participating in Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province project. (Photo: BAS)
Two Weddell sealsAustralian treaty inspectors visit a Russian vessel chartered by India in Antarctica.The Mawson’s Huts Historic Site at Cape Denison

With the 1961 entry into force of the Antarctic Treaty, the stage was set for the development of practical measures to implement the Treaty’s objectives. The Treaty negotiators had carefully avoided discussion of prescriptive measures for specific activities—to do so would have impeded agreement to the head instrument. However, from the first Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, attention was turned to implementation. The context for this came from Treaty Article IX which provided for meetings at which the Parties could consult and outlined the kind of issues that should be addressed, such as facilitation of scientific research, cooperation in Antarctica, exercise of the rights of inspection, questions relating to jurisdiction, and conservation of living resources. This list was not exhaustive and as the Treaty matured, the Parties took a very broad interpretation of what could be discussed.

Thus, the Treaty can be regarded as the framework for a System constructed of practical measures. So commenced the elaboration of what has since been termed the Antarctic Treaty System, an amalgam of related ‘instruments’ and ‘institutions’, at the heart of which is the Antarctic Treaty and its essential principles. The instruments detail measures relating to a wide range of actions, and an evolving network of institutions underpin specific functions.

The first significant instrument to be adopted was the 1964 Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora. The Parties then moved to address sealing and adopted the 1972 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, which entered into force in 1978. In 1980, further negotiations resulted in the adoption of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which entered into force in 1982. Attention then turned to the issue of mineral resources. Notwithstanding the lack of interest in exploring for minerals the Treaty Parties addressed the issue and in 1988 adopted the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities. This Convention did not enter into force, being overtaken by the 1991 adoption of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which provided comprehensive environmental rules and entered into force in 1998.

Complementing these Treaty-level instruments, the Parties adopted numerous Recommendations, Decisions, Resolutions and Measures, addressing matters as diverse as radio communications, air safety, tourism management, exchange of information, collection of meteorites, the conduct of inspections, protection of environmentally important areas and preservation of historic sites and monuments. The various conventions and related instruments are given practical effect through the domestic law and administrative procedures of the Treaty Parties.

The Treaty System is also considered to embrace relevant institutions. These include the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), the primary forum for the exchange of views and the development of the instruments, and the Committee for Environmental Protection, which advises the ATCM on the implementation of the Environmental Protocol. The Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, established in 2004 and based in Buenos Aires, supports these bodies. The Commission for CAMLR addresses issues relating to marine living resources and is supported by the CCAMLR Secretariat, which has its permanent headquarters in Hobart. Other bodies affiliated with the Treaty System include the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, which provide expert advice.

The Treaty System continues to grow as additional measures are adopted at each ATCM and at the annual meetings of the Commission for CAMLR. In addition, membership of the Treaty increases as new Parties accede to the Treaty or the related conventions. For example, on 31 October 2011 the number of Treaty Parties grew to 49 with the accession of Malaysia which, at the Hobart ATCM in 2012, will for the first time be able to participate in discussions about governance of activities in the Antarctic.

In June 2011, at the meeting in Argentina, the Antarctic Treaty Parties recognised 50 years since the entry into force of the Treaty. This was a celebration of achievements, including the evolution from a single Treaty in 1961 to a wide ranging System that addresses significant issues while keeping the Treaty’s fundamental principles at its core. The June meeting was also an opportunity to consider the future work program to expand the Treaty System; by encouraging further growth in membership, strengthening the institutions, and elaborating the suite of instruments that provide for Antarctic governance.


Honorary Fellow, ACE CRC