The next 50 years in Antarctica

08 December 2009 | News story

1 December 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in Washington DC. To acknowledge this milestone, experts in the field of international governance attended the Antarctic Treaty Summit: Science-Policy Interactions in International Governance symposium, hosted at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

The Antarctic reserved the continent for peace and science, ensuring that this special place would remain free of military fortifications and activities while promoting international cooperation in scientific investigation.

The three and a half day summit involved a series of keynote presentations and panel discussions from scientists, conservationists and policy makers who reviewed the lessons learned from the Antarctic Treaty and addressed the hopes for the next 50 years. Dr. G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Prince Albert II of Monaco gave opening addresses.

Dr Harlan Cohen, IUCN’s Advisor on Ocean Governance and International Institutions, gave a concise overview of the last fifty years focused on the important role played by non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations in providing important information and advice without which the Treaty Parties could not effectively or efficiently manage Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

“Looking back, the Antarctic Treaty was developed as a way to reserve Antarctica from Cold War tensions that troubled the world at the time,” explained Dr. Cohen. “It represented an innovative way to use scientific exchanges to promote disarmament. This developed from a culture in which governments of the time operated in relative secrecy. The closed nature of the Antarctic Treaty System changed over time and debates on Antarctica in the United Nations General Assembly also played a major role in promoting more open information policies.”

Jim Barnes, Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) addressed the challenges that still face the Treaty.

“Bringing Measures and Annexes into force promptly is very important for the credibility and legitimacy of the Antarctic Treaty System,” he explained. “We all agree that further steps towards fuller transparency must be taken and that positive synergies among various international agreements should be promoted.”

As commercial tourism increases additional regulatory measures are needed. Though some initial steps have been taken, there is not a comprehensive, legally-binding system that will prevent tourism activities that rely on larger vessels that are not suitable for use in remote, poorly charted and often icy waters and on land-based infrastructure.

All in all, the summit proved successful in terms of analyzing the treaty’s successes and weaknesses. It was clear that there is much still to achieve to ensure that the Antarctic Treaty System works effectively over the next five decades.

About The Antarctic Treaty
After a decade of diplomatic contacts and informal consultations among an interested group of countries, on 3 May 1958, President Eisenhower formally invited those countries “which have engaged in scientific activities in Antarctica over the past nine months in connection with the International Geophysical Year” to confer in the United States about an Antarctic Treaty. This invitation was “dedicated to the principle that the vast uninhabited wastes of Antarctica shall be used only for peaceful purposes…insuring that this same kind of cooperation for the benefit of all mankind shall be perpetuated.”

Over the next eighteen months, and through the tensions of the cold war, the two superpowers and the other ten countries that cooperated in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) from July 1, 1957 through December 31, 1958 contributed to sixty secret preparatory meetings in Washington, D.C. The final negotiations were convened as the “Conference on Antarctica” at a Department of State annex in Washington, DC from 15 October to 1 December 1959, when the Antarctic Treaty was signed by the twelve Antarctica-IGY countries.

The Antarctic Treaty came into force on June 23, 1961 after its ratification by all twelve countries that had collaborated in Antarctic research activities during the International Geophysical Year from July 1, 1957 through December 31, 1958. These included Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom and the United States.