The Moon’s Artemis Accords are no blueprint for mining Antarctica
11 Jul 2024|

Can the recently concluded Artemis Accords that pave the way for exploring, extracting and using resources of the Moon, Mars and other stellar bodies become a blueprint for the mining of Antarctica? No, they can’t, even though questions of dividing rights on the Moon and in Antarctica look superficially similar.

Launched in 2020, the Artemis Accords broke new ground in tackling the question of resource exploitation because they were conceived as agreements between national space agencies rather than governments. They were also established outside the umbrella of the United Nations, even though they claim to be grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. By June 2024, the accords had 43 signatories.

The accords are not a blueprint for the mining of Antarctica for several reasons.

First, no one has staked a territorial claim on the Moon or any other celestial body, making it simpler to negotiate exploitation rights than in Antarctica. In Antarctica, seven territorial claims were tabled by Chile, Argentina, Britain, Norway, Australia, France and New Zealand between 1904 and 1940, but these were frozen under Article IV of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which dedicated the continent to peace and science. To resolve this complex web of territorial claims and decide on the ownership of Antarctica, governments will have to remain central to Antarctic affairs.

Second, it would be impossible for a select few nations to pursue the mining of Antarctica, as that idea was rejected by the UN in the 1980s when the Question of Antarctica was deliberated. In the early 1980s, parties to the Antarctic Treaty began negotiating a mining regime for the continent—the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA)—only to see it torpedoed by the UN.

In 1986, General Assembly Resolution A/Res/41/88 called ‘upon the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties to impose a moratorium on the negotiations … until such time as all members of the international community can participate fully’.  CRAMRA collapsed soon after and was replaced by an Environmental Protocol whose Article 7 bans mining on the continent. If parties to the Antarctic Treaty could not get away with mining the continent in the 1980s without an inclusive agreement, there is little chance they could do so now.

Excluding players not considered useful was an explicit strategy in the negotiation of the  Artemis Accords. When the Accords were being crafted by the United States, a senior US official told Reuters that the agreements were part of ‘the Trump administration’s plan to forgo the treaty process at the United Nations and instead reach agreement with “like-minded nations,” partly because a treaty process would take too long and working with non-spacefaring states would be unproductive.’

In other words, the administration did not want to negotiate with countries which did not have the technological capacity to reach outer space (similar to the strategy behind CRAMRA) and which would simply insist on inserting the Common Heritage of Mankind (CHM) principle into the new agreement, as well as the concept of benefit-sharing that normally goes with it. In fact, the CHM principle referenced in the 1984 Moon Treaty resulted in the agreement being ratified by very few spacefaring nations, setting a poor precedent.

While the founding members of the Artemis Accords, including the US, Australia and Canada, are now seeking to expand membership to include developing nations, they are doing so based on pre-agreed rights and obligations. Negotiations on Antarctica cannot be controlled by a select few in the same way, as the UN’s rejection of CRAMRA led to the expansion of the Antarctic Treaty to include countries such as India and China. These countries enjoy full decision-making powers and cannot be handed a done deal.

While the Artemis Accords share some commonalities with the Antarctic Treaty—calling for peaceful activities, the sharing of scientific data and transparency—they differ in that they directly tackle the question of ‘space resources’. Indeed, critics of the Accords contend that since the Outer Space Treaty expressly forbids nations from staking claim to a planetary body, the agreements violate space law by allowing signatories to lay claim to any resources extracted from celestial bodies. They argue that unilateral approval of commercial exploitation violates the treaty and that only an international regime could provide legitimacy.

In fact, both Russia and China have refused to join the Accords, calling them US-centric and proceeding to create their own alternative. Roscosmos and the China National Space Administration are currently planning an International Lunar Research Station, to which they are  trying to lure participation by other nations. In contrast, in Antarctica both Russia and China have full decision-making powers under the Antarctic Treaty and cannot be sidelined.

While the ban on mining in Antarctica does not expire, parties to the Environmental Protocol can revisit any aspect of the Protocol in 2048. It is hard to imagine Antarctica’s equivalent of national space programs, in other words, the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs and its members, ever being given the lead in deciding whether and how to mine Antarctica.

The seventh continent will need its own blueprint.