Fifty years ago public attention on the Antarctic was focused on research being undertaken as part of the International Geophysical Year which, in late 1958, was drawing to a close. Twelve nations were active in Antarctica at unprecedented levels, putting a shape to the continent and establishing toe-holds in a region which, to that point, was barely understood beyond tales of heroism and discovery.
But this work was proceeding in the political environment of the Cold War, where economies were strengthening and expansion of national interests was the priority for many. While polar science was making headlines, behind the scenes discussions were escalating over whether nations could continue to cooperate in Antarctica at the conclusion of the ‘truce’ embodied in the International Geophysical Year. There was the undeniable context of seven existing territorial claims to the Antarctic continent, and stark differences of views about the validity of those claims. Proposals by the United States 10 years earlier, that the continent should be internationalised, had fallen on deaf ears.
In 1958 the 12 countries active in Antarctica participated in a conference to negotiate a Treaty for the Antarctic. These discussions resulted in the adoption of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959, with the 12 nations becoming the Treaty’s original signatories. Peace had been established; cooperation had been entrenched as the norm for the region.
The Treaty entered into force in July 1961 when the Parties met in Canberra for their first consultative meeting. Negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty had been focused on the principles of peace in Antarctica, freedom of scientific research, and accommodating the differences of view over sovereignty. At the first meeting, however, the focus of the Parties was no longer on the issues that had once separated them, but on practical ways of getting things done in Antarctica. For example, the meeting adopted recommendations relating to exchanging information, scientific personnel and research data between the Parties; conservation of flora and fauna; protecting historic sites; assistance in emergencies; and telecommunications and postal services. Any geopolitical tensions that might have existed in Antarctic affairs had been replaced by practical cooperation. This pattern continues in meetings today.
From the basis of the relatively simple, albeit critically important principles embodied in the Treaty, the Parties developed a sophisticated regime to manage the Antarctic region. To the Treaty were added associated legal instruments, such as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. These were complemented by numerous Recommendations, Measures, Decisions and Resolutions addressing a wide range of practical issues. Together these instruments (and the institutions that support them) form what is now known as the Antarctic Treaty system.
Significant attention was given in the content of these instruments to refining the agreed approaches to activities in Antarctica. In the last two decades there has been a substantial focus on updating and strengthening the range of measures relating to environmental protection — particularly measures that enhance the requirements put in place by the environmental Protocol.
As the Treaty system has matured, it has also enjoyed expanded membership. From the 12 original signatories the number of Parties has grown to 47, and the number of Consultative Parties (the states that participate in decision-making in the Treaty meetings because they have active scientific programs) has grown to 28.
But what of the future? The vitality of the Treaty is not just measured by the number of Parties. It is also measured by the adherence of Parties to the Treaty’s basic principles and the obligations they have adopted, and by the responsiveness of the Treaty system to the challenges of managing Antarctic activities. If the current trends continue, we can expect the Treaty Parties to develop an even broader view of their responsibilities.
The Antarctic Treaty can be seen as an enduring legacy of the International Geophysical Year. In the same way, the International Polar Year (2007–09) will leave a legacy of enhanced cooperation within the Antarctic Treaty and stronger collaboration between national Antarctic programs that address globally significant science and environmental issues. This is evidenced by recognition of Antarctica’s role in the global environment and the commitment shown to expanding the quantity and quality of research that has worldwide value; for example, research on climate change and ocean acidification.
It is also likely that we will see further development of the Treaty system's measures to manage tourism, shipping and biological prospecting, and the institutions that support the system. We will see further adaptation of the Treaty to changes in the external legal and geopolitical environment; and we will see growing membership of the Treaty, most notably from developing states. But at the heart of it will be continued adherence to the Treaty's principles of peaceful cooperation, and looking after Antarctica for the benefit of the world.
The 32nd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in April 2009, in Baltimore, United States, will be as much an opportunity to look forward, as it is to look back and celebrate how far we have come.
As hosts of the meeting, the United States will also convene a high-level event in Washington to lend diplomatic support for continued active polar scientific collaboration following the conclusion of the International Polar Year. This session will include representatives from all 28 Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty. In recognition of the bi-polar character of the International Polar Year this session will also involve the eight members of the Arctic Council.
It is fitting that in 2009 the Parties will be able to gather for a celebration of the Treaty in the country, and the city, where the Treaty was signed 50 years before.
General Manager Policy, AAD