Entry into force: Making sense of The 1959 Antarctic Treaty



“With gay tea-time music, bright lights, and a background of potted palm trees and the flag of 12 nations, it seemed more like a prelude to a theatre opening than the opening of an international conference” Dr Brian Roberts reflecting on the opening of the Antarctic Treaty negotiations, October 1959.

Today, as @Jamie_Woodward_ reminded me this morning is the anniversary of the entry into force of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. In 1961, this remarkable treaty went ‘live’ after twelve countries who were present at its signing in December 1959 secured accession through their respective national legislatures. The UK was the first to accede to the treaty and one reason why that might be so was British interests were secured in the provisions of the said treaty. Others, such as Argentina and Chile in particular were less persuaded by the treaty; did the treaty for example provide sufficient protection for those who considered that parts of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean belonged to their countries?

One of the richest sources for those interested in the origins of the Antarctic Treaty lies in the neatly typed pages of a diary kept by the British polar scientist and administrator, Dr Brian Roberts. While Roberts’ diaries (see the opening quote for an example) are not devoid of their own positionally, he had had a long and interesting involvement with both Polar Regions, and by 1959 he was unquestionably one of the most notable polar experts in the UK. Combining a long standing involvement with the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, he was deeply involved with steering the polar policies of the UK through his position within the American Department of the Foreign Office. Roberts, like others who travelled to Washington DC to discuss the future of the Antarctic, understood well the problems and challenges facing this remote continent. In the aftermath of the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year, there were grounds for hope that international scientific co-operation might be able to galvanise international agreement. 12 countries including the two superpowers participated in the Antarctic portion of the IGY and worked for 18 months on national and international scientific projects designed to better understand how Antarctica, planet earth and the wider planetary system might be inter-related to one another.

For all the talk of international scientific co-operation and goodwill, Dr Roberts and others knew that there were things that had been left unsaid (and avoided). Four problems loomed large; first, the Antarctic was a contested geopolitical space. There were, by October 1959, seven claimant states (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand and United Kingdom). Three countries (Argentina, Chile and the United Kingdom) were locked in a bitter struggle for territorial sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. Britain’s dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) was another regional factor. Second, Cold War tension between the superpowers was extending into the Polar Regions. While all the attention was on the Arctic, the Antarctic was not immune. There was talk and evidence of the Antarctic being a military testing ground and even a nuclear testing zone. With no indigenous population it looked like the ideal ’empty space’. Third, resources were a ‘live issue’ as speculation was rampant that the polar continent might be filled with strategic minerals such as uranium. Past experience with living resources like sealing and whaling did not offer much solace on how things might be regulated. Finally, was science a palliative presence? The IGY suggested that ‘big science’ in particular could be rather useful in consolidating sovereignty-security agendas. Why locate a scientific station at the South Pole (the US) and the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility (USSR)? Answer: to show off your logistical and scientific credentials and remind the claimant states that you don’t take seriously their claims. Science became, and remains to this day, a vital accomplice for all kinds of ‘sovereignty games’.

Back to the conference. The United States after IGY convened a conference in Washington to discuss the future of the Antarctic. Starting in October 1959, the delegates were under no illusions that tough negotiation was the order of the day. Roberts’ diaries record with great clarity the arguments that went on during the formal negotiations but well beyond at receptions, in corridors and elsewhere around Washington DC. As his diary records, on November 4th, “I wake up from a nightmare of papers suddenly realising that I am not not in a stuffy conference room but in my own stuffier bedroom. To describe my state of mind at these times one really needs a kaleidoscope capable of mixing faces, languages (there were four official languages at play), draft clauses, words and phrases out of context: ‘the accession clause’, ‘jurisdiction’, ‘observers’, ‘inspection’…”. Every element of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty involved intense discussion and some things were not just spoken about for the sake of preserving some kind of unity of purpose. The biggest one was resources. There is no explicit reference to resources. And the reason was simple – everyone knew that if you spoke about resources you then got onto the issue of ownership and sovereignty and in a deeply divided space that was explosive.

The treaty was signed on 1 December 1959. Six weeks of formal negotiation (there were many pre-conference meetings prior to October 1959) delivered a short but remarkable treaty. Highlights include – agreement over the divisive nature of sovereignty, prioritising science and international co-operation, agreeing a zone of application, mandating the Antarctic as a nuclear weapon free zone, banning military activities (baring the military performing a logistical support role) and agreeing inspection and conflict resolution mechanisms designed to build international confidence. While the treaty only had twelve signatories, provisions were also put in place for others to accede to the treaty and become full members once they had demonstrated ‘substantive scientific activity’ (not defined) which led to accusations that this was designed to set the bar quite high for those who might wish to join in the future (India had expressed interest in the future of the Antarctic in the 1950s for instance).

But for all its provisions, claimant states such as Argentina, Australia and Chile were still not happy with the concessions they felt they had to make in order to secure wider agreement. The two South American countries, in particular, believed that their rights to the Antarctic Peninsula were inalienable and intimately connected to their metropolitan territories. It took a huge effort to persuade their national parliamentarians that this treaty was not a ‘sell out’. Britain on the other hand, got a good deal – a treaty that secured its interests and crucially paved the way, so some thoughts within government, to reduce Antarctic-related spending. There were even some who wanted Britain to ‘pull out’ of Antarctica all together in 1958 and again in 1964. Some fierce lobbying by people like Brian Roberts prevented that.

So next time you cast an eye over the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty bear a thought for those who laboured over the words and provisions. While we can criticise all kinds of presumptions and conceits, I suspect that what was achieved was remarkable in difficult circumstances and perhaps only possible because the polar continent was, unlike today, geographically and politically remote. With only twelve delegations it was just about possible to accommodate all kinds of interests. And with the exception of Japan, it was a group dominated by European, South American and the US. No countries from Asia and Africa were there which tells its own story.

I am not sure an Antarctic Treaty of that kind scope would be possible today and if anything we have plenty of issues to remind us that the regulation (and indeed sovereignty) of the region remains contestable. The Antarctic Treaty deferred on the issue of resources and for good reason. Some progress has been made (living resources especially on the question of fishing) but other areas (non-living resources) remain challenging. And the list of ‘challenging issues’ is quite a long one; coastal state (sic) mapping of Southern Ocean continental shelves, whales and ‘scientific whaling’, commercial fishing and the status of marine protected areas, biological prospecting, tourism, the management of ‘national heritage’, and biodiversity protection. All of these issues continue to test the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty and associated legal instruments such as the Protocol on Environmental Protection. And unlike in 1959, we have vastly more players interested in the Antarctic, as countries such as Brazil, Chile, Korea and India continue to make their presence felt in and beyond the southern polar region.






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