Tests of the Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty set the base line for peace and security. But the treaty was necessary for a reason. Furthermore, the Treaty has undergone revision in order to maintain peace in an ever-evolving international environment.

The initial reason for an Antarctic Treaty was the overlapping claims of seven nations, Britain, France, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina to Antarctica. War was inevitable when three countries claimed the same slice of the continent. The unknown value of the territory made the grab for territory even more contentious.

Courtesy: National Science Foundation

The Antarctic Treaty rectified this situation by refuting all territorial claims to Antarctica. However, this possibility still remains. The seven nations, although all original signatories of the Treaty, still nominally claim their sovereign territories. Furthermore, the United States and Russia, should the treaty structure fail, reserve the right to acquire territory. Hence, the infrastructure that supports the Treaty, and the additions and allow it to remain flexible become even more important.

The next test for Antarctic came in 1988, when an addition to the Treaty was proposed to regulate mining in Antarctica. It was believed that oil reserves, as well as natural gas may be trapped underneath the eternal tundra and ice that covers the continent. Plans were made to enforce "safe" mining techniques, and study the environmental impacts mining had on the rare ecosystem.

International outrage over the proposal was so strong, that many governments began to change their minds over the initiative. France and Australia began to echo calls from other nations to make Antarctic a global park. Nations in the UN argued that the environmental problems that Antarctic would face would eventually face the world. When the initiative came to a vote, it was defeated. Instead, the consultative nations of the Antarctic Treaty decided on the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, commonly known as the Madrid Protocol, in 1990. The Protocol first and foremost establishes Antarctica as a natural reserve. Furthermore, it prohibits mining, and establishes a system for getting new scientific research approved by the Secretariat for international approval.

One perpetual problem the Treaty faces is exclusivity. The Treaty precludes from consultative status (or voting status) any nations that do not have an on-going scientific program in Antarctica. Repeated calls in the General Assembly have yet to lead to an opening up of the treaty. Despite the allowance of the UNEP to observe, poorer nations are being secluded from decision making on Antarctic based on their poverty. Antarctic cannot become a "global park" unless the entire globe is allowed to participate. In short, since what happens in Antarctica does not stay in Antarctica, these nations feel it is imperative that they should be allowed a say in the decisions that ultimately affect everyone. It is this dispute that puts the most pressure on the framework of Antarctica, and prevents other areas from being designated as an international territory.