Treaty inspections — still important 40 years on

For the first time in over a decade, a party of Australian officials in Antarctica has inspected the stations, activities and equipment of many of their Antarctic Treaty partners.

In January this year, a three-person observer party visited Ross Island to inspect New Zealand’s Scott Base and the United States’ McMurdo Station — stations not inspected since the adoption of the Madrid Protocol. The observer party also inspected the US air fields on the Ross Shelf, the US research vessel Nathanial B Palmer, and protected areas and tourist activities on Ross Island.

A second inspection in February was conducted jointly by the United Kingdom, Peru and Australia, supported by the Royal Navy icebreaker Endurance. This inspection party visited 14 operational stations, eight closed stations and five historic sites on the Antarctic Peninsula and King George Island. Stations operated by Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Korea, Russia, Spain, the Ukraine and the United Kingdom were inspected, as well as the Russian tourist vessel Professor Molchanov.

The right to conduct inspections is established by Article VII of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which states that all areas of Antarctica (including stations, equipment, and all ships and aircraft at points of discharging or embarking cargoes or personnel) be open at all times to inspection by observers appointed by another Party. Findings must then be reported to other Parties through the annual Treaty meeting. The inspection provision aims to ensure transparency in the conduct of research and support activities in Antarctica and was an important feature of a Treaty negotiated during the ‘cold war’ period — a time of tensions over military ambitions. Today inspections are as much about environmental protection as they are about ensuring peaceful scientific study, thanks to the adoption of an environmental protocol by the Treaty in 1991.

Inspections are an important part of the Antarctic Treaty system, encouraging compliance with the obligations Parties have imposed on themselves, and improving the broader transparency of how activities are undertaken in Antarctica. Australia is a strong supporter of the inspection system. However, with our activities focused on east Antarctica, well away from the concentration of activities on the Antarctic Peninsula and the Ross Sea region, it has been difficult for Australia to actively contribute to inspections. Our recent efforts address this issue. Our inspection reports will be considered by the Committee for Environmental Protection and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Stockholm in June.

Andrew Jackson and Tom Maggs, Antarctic and International Policy, AAD