Cooperative spirit steers Antarctic meeting

One of the features of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) is that decisions are taken by consensus. All the 28 Consultative Parties — the original signatories to the Antarctic Treaty — as well as those with active Antarctic science programs, work to agree on the decisions and actions that help govern and protect Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. This results in a truly cooperative and harmonious approach to managing the Antarctic region.

At the 35th ATCM in Hobart, decisions ranged from the ‘big picture’ discussions of encouraging participation in Antarctic agreements, through to practical matters of cooperation, and how the Parties organise their work. The ATCM released a communiqué at the conclusion of the meeting, summarising the key outcomes of the meeting.

Since the last ATCM, Malaysia and Pakistan have become Parties to the Treaty — making a total of 50 Parties.

A commitment to environmental protection

Australia, France and Spain were instrumental in the decision to establish the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (in 1991). The Protocol provides comprehensive protection for Antarctica, prohibits mining, and established the Committee for Environmental Protection. Some of those Parties to the Treaty that do not have active Antarctic programs have not yet signed up to the Protocol, so at the 34th ATCM in 2011, Australia, France and Spain proposed a coordinated diplomatic push to encourage them to do so. This year, we reported that five states so far had decided to take this step. The importance of this work was reinforced by the Hon. Bob Hawke AC (who was Prime Minister of Australia when the decision was taken to pursue the Protocol), and the Hon Michel Rocard AC, former Prime Minister of France. The ATCM agreed on further diplomatic representations to continue this effort.

Globally significant science

Under its regular agenda, the ATCM considers scientific cooperation and major scientific activities. Russia reported on its achievement in accessing sub-glacial Lake Vostok, and the United Kingdom outlined its plans to research sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth. New science capabilities are coming on line, with India reporting on the completion of its new research station ‘Bharati’ (in the Larsemann Hills region of East Antarctica), while the Republic of Korea tabled its final environmental assessment for Jang Bogo research station in the Ross Sea region.

Well managed tourism

The ATCM welcomed a report from the Committee for Environmental Protection on what is known about the environmental impacts of commercial tourism activity, and agreed with its recommendations to improve data collection and site monitoring to support tourism management decisions.

The Treaty Parties also took steps relating to two small but specialised activity sectors. Guidelines were adopted to raise awareness of the requirements for Antarctic activities among those planning yacht visits, and to give specific advice to help ensure that yacht visits are safe and environmentally sensitive. Expeditions on the continent — land (or ice) based activities — also have particular characteristics, and guidelines were agreed to assist Parties in assessing proposals for these activities.

The Parties adopted site-specific guidelines for three additional sites where tourism occurs. Existing guidelines for Aitcho Island in the Peninsula Region were also revised. Site specific guidelines are now in place for the most heavily used sites, and for those that are particularly sensitive.

Understanding and responding to climate change effects

ATCM delegates continue to work on the implications of climate change in the Antarctic context — one of the region’s most pressing concerns. A key priority for Antarctic Treaty Parties is conveying information about Antarctica and Antarctic science to the international forums that deal with climate change issues. Australia led the discussion about how the Antarctic Treaty Parties can do this most effectively.

A strategic approach to work

The Meeting supported the proposal by Australia, Belgium, and many other Parties, to develop a work plan for addressing priority issues at meetings. Australia and Belgium will continue to lead this work, with Belgium hosting a workshop immediately prior to the next ATCM in Brussels. Next year’s meeting will also see a focus on search and rescue issues, with a workshop on enhancing cooperation and coordination for incident response in the Antarctic region.


Senior Policy Officer, Australian Antarctic Division