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Antarctic environmental anniversary a reminder that diplomacy is key to regional security

Posted By and on October 1, 2021 @ 06:00

Monday 4 October marks the 30th anniversary of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty [1]. The signing of the protocol by 26 countries marked the end of a tumultuous few years of diplomatic shock and international wrangling. It also signified a major achievement for international diplomacy, led by Australia.

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty [2] had, among other things, prohibited military activities in the entire region below 60° South—a provision of significant importance for Australian security.

From 1982 until 1988, the Antarctic Treaty parties had been negotiating an international convention that would regulate mining activities in Antarctica. The Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resources was a pre-emptive move to ensure that the impacts of any potential mining would be thoroughly assessed and, if judged acceptable, ensure that it was properly regulated.

During the negotiation of the minerals convention, a number of countries joined the Antarctic Treaty, including China, India and the Republic of Korea. The Antarctic Minerals Convention was agreed in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, in June 1988.

While the minerals convention was being negotiated, environmental organisations were engaged and, when it became clear that a ‘world park’ option for Antarctica wouldn’t succeed, they focused on strengthening the convention’s environmental protections.

However, after the minerals convention’s adoption, opposition to even the possibility of mining in Antarctica grew loud and strong. France was the first to express doubts about the wisdom of proceeding. Environmentalists were also active and well organised in Australia and put a great deal of political pressure on the Labor government, which took political pride in its environmental achievements. Pressure on Prime Minister Bob Hawke escalated in the wake of the Exxon Valdez calamity [3], which spurred opposition leader John Howard to oppose Australia’s signature of the convention.

Australia, with the support of France, went on to do the unthinkable. Less than a year after agreeing to the minerals convention, Australia announced in May 1989 that it wouldn’t sign it—ensuring that it couldn’t come into force. This sent shockwaves through the Antarctic Treaty System. How could a leading Antarctic country walk away from an international agreement that took many years to negotiate and which it had supported? Reneging consensus on such a vexed issue was probably the biggest destabilising event [2] for the Antarctic Treaty since it came into force in 1961.

Australia and France, with a small but growing band of supporters, set about on a huge diplomatic effort to negotiate an agreement that would prohibit mining in Antarctica and establish a comprehensive regime for environmental protection and management. The quiet, steady, behind-closed-doors discussions and negotiation by senior officials that were the standard fare of the Antarctic Treaty now involved heads of state, prime ministers, ministers and teams of senior diplomatic negotiators.

Remarkably, it took only two years to re-establish consensus on an environmental protocol that put in place legally binding environmental rules. The protocol indefinitely prohibits mineral resource activities in Antarctica and sets Antarctica aside ‘as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. It required the participation of all Antarctic Treaty consultative parties and entered into force in 1998.

In the light of growing geopolitical tensions, this remarkable achievement offers several lessons relevant to diplomacy and international relations today.

It shows that concerted diplomatic efforts, coordinated by like-minded countries and visibly championed by government leaders, can change the course of history. Even though the Antarctic Treaty is effectively a regional agreement, its states parties are global—the world’s then-superpowers were parties to the treaty.

The success of the negotiations for the environmental protocol demonstrates that middle powers such as Australia can play a significant and independent role in the international diplomatic landscape. Australia had a unique opportunity to use its privileges as an Antarctic claimant state to change the course of Antarctic politics.

Australia’s closest allies, the UK and the US, wouldn’t have expected Australia and France to unravel the minerals convention. New Zealand was appalled; Australia’s actions denied it a diplomatic victory on its initiative to establish a minerals regime. Nonetheless, all parties to the Antarctic Treaty still signed on to the environmental protocol in 1991, accepting that the global public interest was better served by an environmental regime.

It also shows that ‘hard’ diplomacy is required to shift the status quo. Australia and many other countries sent high-level, experienced diplomatic negotiators to the negotiations for the environmental protocol. This showed also that a focused effort and considerable resourcing are required to rapidly shift international sentiment.

The most popular myth circulating in the media, and through some think tanks and academic circles, is that the Antarctic Treaty, or the environmental protocol’s ban on mining, will expire in 2048. It does not. Any push to overturn the mining ban would be very difficult because all states that signed the protocol in 1991 would need to ratify any changes.

There’s also a narrative that predicts overt conflict over resources, and the imminent and ultimate failure of the Antarctic Treaty System. And another one that sees all national efforts in Antarctica as direct positioning for a future in which the Antarctic Treaty collapses under the weight of strategic competition.

Such pessimistic views on Antarctica and the Antarctic Treaty System may be alarmist, but it doesn’t mean that geopolitical tensions are absent or that Australia, as claimant to 42% of the Antarctic continent, should be complacent about defence of the treaty and protecting its national interests.

In recent years Russia and China, for example, have attempted to reinterpret some of the fundamental rules, norms and principles of the Antarctic Treaty System and to impose their national positions on treaty parties by withholding consensus on important decisions such as the establishment of marine protected areas. This is worrying to those, like Australia, that are seeking to improve the treaty system’s environmental provisions.

But Australia has to be mindful of how consensus operates. Thirty years ago, Australia itself imposed its will on other parties by refusing consensus on the minerals convention, which had been designed, at Australia’s insistence, to embody strong environmental protections. This points to the critical role for careful diplomacy in advancing Antarctic governance while pursuing the national interest.

Countering the erosion of the rules, norms and principles of the Antarctic Treaty System requires strong, concerted diplomatic effort. Repeated obstruction to the conduct of proper business should be countered with direct and high-level diplomatic action by Australia and like-minded states—something that was a feature of the treaty system at the turn of the century.

The Antarctic Treaty ensures this vast region in the south is free of military conflict. As we reflect on one of its great successes, the negotiation of the environmental protocol, we should also reflect on the importance of leadership and diplomacy in Antarctic affairs.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/antarctic-environmental-anniversary-a-reminder-that-diplomacy-is-key-to-regional-security/

URLs in this post:

[1] Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty: https://www.ats.aq/e/protocol.html

[2] 1959 Antarctic Treaty: https://documents.ats.aq/keydocs/vol_1/vol1_2_AT_Antarctic_Treaty_e.pdf

[3] Exxon Valdez calamity: https://www.history.com/topics/1980s/exxon-valdez-oil-spill

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