Pressures on the Antarctic Treaty
16 Apr 2013|

Guest editor Anthony Bergin

 Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in the 2007–2008 summer season. The new elevated Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is now complete. In the foreground is the ceremonial South Pole and the flags for the original 12 signatory nations to Antarctic Treaty.The Antarctic Treaty is a successful and effective international instrument, providing a stable framework for over half a century of collaborative governance. It provides a means for geopolitical interests to be managed within the framework of international collaboration and commitment to avoiding discord, and is given effect by the number of non-claimant states acceding to the treaty. But an increasing number of accessions to the treaty and its associated instruments (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)) and requests for Antarctic Treaty Consultative Party (ATCP) status will bring their own challenges.

The accession of Malaysia in October 2011—formerly a leading critic of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), though not of the principles of peace and science embedded in the Antarctic Treaty—is a useful example here. Malaysia’s critique of the Antarctic Treaty and the ATS—referred to as the ‘Question of Antarctica’—contributed to the ATS undergoing fundamental reform, with the ATCPs simultaneously addressing the challenges of environmental management and the scientific imperatives that come with it and opening up the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) while maintaining control over the system and its processes. The entry of new states to the system, with the accession of Pakistan to the Antarctic Treaty in March 2012, and the purported interest of Iran in such action provides evidence of ongoing interest in the ATS.

I recognise that the Antarctic Treaty and ATS have faced significant pressures and challenges since coming into force and that similar pressures and challenges will arise in the future. These challenges are important in the evolution of the ‘Treaty system’ and can be constructive as long as the parties accept and maintain commitments to the norms and values of the treaty, as embedded in the ATS. Australia has a major role in ensuring that these norms and values are maintained.

For instance, the nature of decision-making within the ATS mediates any substantial conflicts but this point should not be downplayed. The long-running tensions between Argentina and the United Kingdom on the status of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas (and South Georgia and South Shetland Islands) are both an example of pressures and of how those pressures are managed within the ATS. The increasing engagement of Asian states like Malaysia provides opportunities and challenges for the Antarctic Treaty in the ‘Asian Century’. Such engagement will help maintain the relevance of the ATS, reduce the longstanding criticism of the system as a rich industrialised nations ‘club’, and broaden the base of scientific endeavour and collaboration. Challenges will arise as new entrants commit to the formal processes and adjust to the norms and values of the system

Australia has a major role to play here. It has formal responsibilities to ensure the ongoing viability of the ATS, first as an important actor in the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty and original signatory to the treaty and, secondly, but more specifically, as depository state for the CCAMLR. Australia took a leadership role during the negotiation of the Madrid Protocol and in the establishment and operation of the Committee for Environmental Protection under the protocol. With France it has undertaken a major effort to increase accessions to the Madrid Protocol and to ensure that this instrument provides a focus to the ATS. It has provided support to new entrants to the ATS, and should continue this support. Australia’s longstanding science program provides important opportunities to partner states and its experience on the continent is invaluable—its expertise has been sought by China as it establishes its program on the continent.

As in the past, challenges will arise from within and from outside the ATS. The challenges may be more symbolic—treaty parties can expect ongoing and increased scrutiny of their actions by non-governmental groups, and can be expected to press for more open access to the ATCM, and for broadening of observer status within the system. More substantive pressures may arise from the increasing intersection of the ATS with other regimes, and where the past practice of ‘quarantining’ issues (for example, whaling, world heritage listing or United Nations involvement) outside the ATS is less successful than it is currently. Issues currently more closely linked to the ATS agenda such as tourism, biological prospecting and marine protected areas provide insights—the system can manage them but perhaps not as quickly or in the directions that outside critics wish.

Australia has a significant role to ensure the ongoing development of the ATS and should use its good standing to help manage pressures from within and without the ATS; the former as new and emergent issues face the ATS, the latter from issues and actors (states and non-governmental organisations) external to the ATS. At the same time it should continue to be active in developing the agenda in ATCM and CCAMLR forums and work with a range of parties to advance this agenda.

Marcus Haward is with the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the university of Tasmania. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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