Antarctica without borders

During the International Geophysical Year of 1958–59 twelve countries had been active in Antarctica. Scientists had spread out around the coast, and inland, establishing stations and field camps and undertaking research in a wide range of disciplines. They ignored any borders that appeared on maps and, by mutual agreement, undertook their scientific work with a spirit of cooperation. The fact that the entire continent was without a governance regime and that there were simmering tensions with respect to differences of view over sovereign claims was conveniently ignored.

At the conclusion of the IGY it was clear that scientists would want to return to the Antarctic—the surface had barely been scratched. It was also clear that governments held strong aspirations to pursue their strategic interests, including the problematic issue of protecting their sovereign positions. These had become cemented in the decades following the territorial claim of Great Britain in 1908, and the subsequent claims of six other nations, including Australia’s. However, in the post World War 2 environment, uncontrolled pursuit of national interests would serve no-one. The pressure to settle the so-called Antarctic Problem heightened with overlapping claims in the Antarctic Peninsula, the emerging competition of Antarctic interests between the US and the USSR, and the evolving ‘Cold War’ tensions. Options constituting a condominium arrangement, or signalling internationalisation of the Antarctic, were firmly rejected. Each of the nations involved insisted on participation in whatever arrangement would be invoked, but without detriment to their interests.

At the initiative of the United States, diplomats from the 12 nations that had been active in Antarctica during the IGY, met in Washington to explore the options for managing the competing interests and ensuring that scientists could pursue their work in peace. A series of meetings between 1958 and 1959 resulted in agreement to hold formal negotiations. These negotiations ended with signature of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959.

By contemporary standards of international law the Antarctic Treaty is a remarkably short document—just 14 articles. Perhaps its brevity is its success as it focuses on critically important principles for the region: peace, cooperation, non-nuclearisation and free exchange of scientific results. These are all solid foundations for the Treaty and have endured in the subsequent 50 years. But the cornerstone is Article IV which deals with the issue of territorial sovereignty—and it does so elegantly by preventing new claims and setting aside arguments over the existing ones.

As a nation with the largest territory in Antarctica, Australia took particular interest in the ways in which the differences of view over this potentially destabilising issue could be accommodated. And it was here that Australia came to play an important role with the personal intervention of Richard Casey, Australia’s Foreign Minister. The result broke the deadlock between the countries and, ultimately, delivered a formula that ensured that no country would be disadvantaged. Peace would be maintained and the status quo on sovereignty would be preserved. While the US had provided the setting for successful negotiations, Australia had provided the diplomatic solution.

Article IX provided a mechanism for the Parties to develop measures to further the principles and objectives of the Treaty. It also required that a meeting would be held in Canberra within two months of the Treaty’s entry into force—the mention of a specific capital for such purposes is highly unusual in an international Treaty and has been regarded as de facto recognition of Australia’s role in the negotiations.

The Treaty came into force on 23 June 1961, and in July that year the 12 nations came together in Canberra for the first Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM I). At that meeting, in what is now Old Parliament House, Prime Minister Robert Menzies addressed the delegates, saying: ‘All the nations concerned have agreed that this is not a place of war, but this is a place of scientific research, of study, of enlarging the boundaries of knowledge, of friendly cooperation’.

By June 2011, with the number of Treaty Parties having quadrupled, ATCM XXXIV celebrated the Treaty’s 50th anniversary. At that meeting in Buenos Aires, Richard Rowe, Head of the Australian Delegation, reflected on the achievements, saying: ‘The Antarctic Treaty shines a light on the quality of international relations where cooperation and consensus are the keys to success… any differences of substance have melted away in the warmth of good relations. Between us we have developed, from small beginnings, the most effective system for managing the Antarctic’.

In June 2012 Australia will, for the third time, host the Treaty meeting. ATCM XXXV will be held in Hobart and will underscore the continuing importance of the Antarctic Treaty to Australia’s engagement in Antarctic affairs and set the scene for the next 50 years of the Treaty.


Honorary Fellow, ACE CRC