Antarctic Treaty System (ATS)



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    Recently, the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty was celebrated on 23 June 2021.



    • Negotiated during the middle of the Cold War by 12 countries with Antarctic interests, it remains the only example of a single treaty that governs a whole continent.
    • Principal provisions include:
      • Promoting the freedom of scientific research, 
      • The use of the continent only for peaceful purposes, and 
      • The prohibition of military activities, nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste.


    About The Treaty

    • The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements, collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), regulate international relations with respect to Antarctica.
    • Antarctica is Earth’s only continent without a native human population. 
    • For the purposes of the treaty system, Antarctica is defined as all of the land and ice shelves south of 60°S latitude
    • The treaty entered into force in 1961 and currently has 54 parties.
    • The treaty is remarkably short and contains only 14 articles
    • The treaty sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation, and bans military activity on the continent. 
    • The treaty was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War
    • Since September 2004, the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat headquarters has been located in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
    • The original signatories were the 12 countries:
      • Argentina, 
      • Australia,
      • Belgium, 
      • Chile, 
      • France, 
      • Japan, 
      • New Zealand, 
      • Norway, 
      • South Africa, 
      • the Soviet Union, 
      • the United Kingdom, and 
      • the United States
    • The treaty was a diplomatic expression of the operational and scientific cooperation that had been achieved “on the ice”.
    • Since 1959, thirty-six other countries have acceded to the Treaty. 
      • They are entitled to participate in the Consultative Meetings during such times as they demonstrate their interest in Antarctica by “conducting substantial research activity there”. 
    • The other twenty Non-Consultative Parties are invited to attend the Consultative Meetings but do not participate in the decision-making.
    • List below shows Consultative Party members :


    (Image Courtesy: new horizon expeditions )


    Territorial Sovereignty

    • Article IV: It effectively seeks to neutralise territorial sovereignty in Antarctica. For the Antarctic territorial claimants, this meant a limit was placed on making any new claim or enlargement of an existing claim.
    • No Territorial Claims: Likewise, no formal recognition was given to any of the seven territorial claims on the continent, by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom.
      • Russia, the United States and China — signatories with significant Antarctic interests who have not formally made territorial claims — are also bound by the limitations of Article IV.
    • Unclaimed Land: One sector of Antarctica is not subject to the claim of any country, which effectively makes it the last unclaimed land on earth.
    • Freezed Disputes: The treaty also put a freeze on any disputes between claimants over their territories on the continent. Claimants agreed to abide by the rules and obligations of the treaty, which meant countries that don’t recognise claims (such as China and Russia) are free to go about scientific research and peaceful activities.


    Image Courtesy: Coolantarctica


    Reasons For Its Survival For So Long:

    • A key reason why the treaty has been able to survive has been its ability to evolve through a number of additional conventions and other legal protocols like: 
      • conservation of marine living resources, 
      • prohibitions on mining, and 
      • the adoption of comprehensive environmental protection mechanisms.
    • Membership of the treaty has grown in the intervening years, with 54 signatories today.
    • Scientific engagement in Antarctica is considered critical to exercising influence under the treaty. 
    • Building, operating and conducting scientific research programs are key to the success not only of the treaty but also to the claimants’ credibility in Antarctica. 


    (The image shows Territorial claims on hold: coolantartica)



    • The Antarctic Treaty has been able to successfully respond to a range of challenges but circumstances are different in the 2020s compared to the 1950s. 
      • Antarctica is much more accessible, partly due to technology but also climate change
      • More countries now have substantive interests in the continent than the original 12. 
      • Some global resources are becoming scarce, especially oil.
    • This will inevitably result in increased attention being given to the potential for Antarctic mining to take place sometime in the future. Calls to revisit the prohibition on Antarctic mining would seem inevitable.
    • There is also uncertainty as to China’s intentions in Antarctica
      • While Australia and China cooperate on a number of Antarctic scientific and logistics programs, the direction of China’s Antarctic engagement and long-term support for the treaty is not clear.
      • There is considerable speculation as to China’s interests in Antarctic resources, especially fisheries and minerals, and whether China may seek to exploit weaknesses in the treaty system to secure access to those resources.


    Way Forward

    • All of the treaty signatories, but especially those with significant stakes in the continent, need to give the future of the treaty more attention.
    • If the treaty’s signatories wish to ensure it remains fit for purpose in the long-term, more strategic thinking needs to be given to Antarctica’s future.


    Source: DTE