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The Antarctic Treaty
The Antarctic Treaty is a unique legal agreement ensuring that member countries work together in Antarctica for peaceful and scientific purposes.
Earlier this century seven countries made territorial claims in Antarctica, in some cases to gain whaling licence fees. Some of those claims were for overlapping territory while other sectors remained unclaimed. New Zealand's claim to the Ross Dependency was made by a British Order-in-Council in 1923.
During the "Cold War" there was growing political unease over possible military uses of Antarctica. The United States established a base at the South Pole, effectively in each claimant's territory, while the USSR established several bases around the continent. Without an agreed legal system disputes could not be resolved.
Scientists designated 1957-58 as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a worldwide programme of upper atmosphere and polar research. Twelve countries co-operated in Antarctica on global scientific research programmes. Many bases were built, including New Zealand's Scott Base. At the end of the IGY it was suggested that this co-operative spirit and peaceful use of Antarctica as a giant scientific laboratory be continued. The twelve countries participating in the IGY (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the USSR) agreed, signing the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 and in 1961 it became law. The treaty is a unique international agreement - no other part of the world is covered in such a way.
The treaty covers the area south of latitude 60° S which includes the entire Antarctic continent and ice shelves. This is 10% of the world's land surface and 10% of its oceans.
The treaty stipulates that Antarctica will only be used for peaceful purposes and won't become a scene of political disagreement.
The key points of the treaty are:
Antarctica is to be used for peaceful purposes only. All military activities are banned, although military personnel can be used to support scientific programmes (the US and NZ military help with transporting scientists and equipment to Scott Base and McMurdo Station and around Antarctica) .
There is freedom of scientific investigation. Scientific plans, information and staff are to be regularly exchanged. This scientific co-operation has been genuinely successful among the treaty nations. The Cape Roberts Project is a current co-operative geological drilling project undertaken by New Zealand, USA, UK, Germany and Italy. The rock cores will provide valuable data on Antarctica's climatic and geological history.
All political claims for territory are frozen for the duration of the treaty and no new claims or enlargements can be made.
Nuclear explosions and the dumping of radioactive waste in Antarctica is banned.
All stations and equipment are open to inspection
by observers appointed by Antarctic Treaty nations.
Any country belonging to the United Nations may join the Antarctic Treaty. Forty three countries have currently signed the treaty, representing about 90% of the world's population. When a country signs the treaty, it agrees to its provisions and is called an acceding state. Those countries that have demonstrated an interest in Antarctica, by conducting substantial research activity (through establishing a scientific station or sending a scientific expedition), can have voting rights at an Antarctic Treaty meeting. These are called consultative countries. There are now 26 countries with consultative status.
In recent years the treaty system has become more publicly
accessible, and non-governmental environment organisations
are now represented at most meetings through the Antarctic
and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC).
The treaty established a consultative system where countries meet every year. Recommendations which regulate human activity in Antarctica are considered and adopted. Exchange of information, preservation of historic sites, conservation of flora and fauna, environmental impact assessment procedures, establishment of protected areas and special reserves and procedures for waste management and pollution control have all been considered.
Tourism has also been addressed at recent Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. The 1994 meeting in Japan produced guidelines for tour operators and tourists, and the Korea meeting in 1995 reached agreement on consistent reporting requirements for tour operators.
The Antarctic Treaty system provides a political framework for Antarctica while another committee co-ordinates scientific co-operation. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) was established in 1958 to "initiate, promote and co-ordinate scientific activity in the Antarctic."
In addition to the treaty, several other special agreements have been formulated to minimise human impact on Antarctica's natural environment. These are:
The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic
Seals (CCAS). This convention protected the fur, elephant
and Ross seals and set quotas on the taking of the more numerous
crabeater, leopard and Weddell seals for scientific research.
The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This convention covers an area larger than the treaty. The boundary used is the Antarctic Convergence - the zone where the cold water of the Antarctic meets warmer water, or the biological boundary between the Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic ecosystems at about 58°S. The resources considered are all living things apart from whales (covered by the International Whaling Commission) and seals.
The convention is a result of international concern over the possible consequences of uncontrolled krill harvesting. It aimed to protect the Antarctic marine ecosystem from over-fishing and to help recovery of the great whales and some species of fish.
The Environmental Protocol. This had its beginnings in the Convention for the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) which tried to find procedures that would permit prospecting and the exploitation of minerals in Antarctica while providing protection for the environment. During the period of the discussions on the minerals issue, some countries began Antarctic research and established bases. This enabled them to become treaty consultative members and be part of any mineral exploitation. This concerned other countries and environmental organisations which began to lobby for Antarctica to become a world park. Australia and France refused to sign the convention. Instead they began discussions on ways to protect the Antarctic environment from mining and pollution.
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic
Treaty (or the Madrid Protocol) was signed in 1991 after
the failure of the minerals convention. It is a comprehensive
environmental agreement on Antarctica which bans any mining
activity for 50 years and declares Antarctica a "natural
reserve devoted to peace and science". The protocol requires
that all human activities be planned and carried out on the
basis of sufficient information on possible environmental
impacts. Monitoring of all Antarctic activities is to be undertaken
and an improved system for protected areas was established.
New Zealand has always been a strong supporter of Antarctic Treaty principles and New Zealand delegates have participated in consultative meetings over the past thirty years.
The Antarctica (Environmental Protection) Act 1994 ratifies the Environmental Protocol into New Zealand law. It is binding on all New Zealanders in Antarctica, all tourists visiting the Ross Dependency and passengers on tour ships leaving New Zealand ports.
The "Environmental Issues and Management" document explains the ways that the New Zealand Antarctic Programme has gone about implementing the requirements of the protocol.
A review of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the Ross Sea region has been initiated by the New Zealand and United States Antarctic programmes, to update management plans so they comply with the protocol. The work is being undertaken by Gateway Antarctica.
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) co-ordinates and exchanges information on science in Antarctica and plays an important role as an advisory body to the Antarctic Treaty members.
SCAR working groups and groups of specialists concentrate on particular scientific disciplines or topical issues. These include biology, glaciology and geology, as well as global change, environmental affairs and conservation and southern ocean ecology.
The Royal Society of New Zealand coordinates New Zealand's contribution.
The Council of Managers of National Antartcic Programs (COMNAP) grew out of SCAR Working Group and it now operates as a separate entity. It meets regularly to discuss operational matters and implementation of recommendations made at Antarctic Treaty Consultative meetings.
Antarctica (2nd edition). Readers Digest. 1990.
Antarctica: The Ross Sea Region. T. Hatherton (ed). DSIR Publishing. 1990.
Explore Antarctica. L. Crossley. Cambridge University Press. 1995.
International Science in the Antarctic. SCAR. 1990.
Science and Stewardship in the Antarctic. National Reading Press. 1993.
Antarctica: A lonely plant travel survival kit. Jeff Rubin. 1996.