Global Insider: The Politics of the Antarctic

The Antarctic Treaty Conference in Uruguay wraps up tomorrow, ending two weeks of discussions between more than 350 foreign officials, on pressing issues such as conflicting territorial claims and environmental threats to the region. In an e-mail interview, Danila Bochkarev, Energy Security Associate at the EastWest Institute, explains the current political climate in the Antarctic.

WPR: What is the current territorial status of Antarctica under the Antarctic Treaty, and how would current territorial claims change that?

Bochkarev: The Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which relates to all land mass and ice shelves south of 60 degrees south latitude, bans military and raw-material exploration activities and sets the continent aside as a purely scientific territory. Current claims are unlikely to change that, unless this document is significantly amended. For instance, the treaty states, “No acts or activities taking place while the present treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present treaty is in force” (Article IV). Right now, seven countries have already made claims, while the U.S. and Russia are reserving the right to do so.

However, if some countries — such as Australia — decide to ask the U.N. to extend their continental shelf (or seabed), and these requests are accepted, they could challenge the Antarctic Treaty should the “national” seabed in question cross the 60th parallel south.

WPR: What conflict resolution mechanisms does the treaty establish?

Bochkarev: Arcticle XI of the treaty proposes that conflicting parties consult by themselves, with a view toward resolving disputes by negotiations. If the dispute is not resolved, it should be referred to the international court of justice.

WPR: What is at stake in this year’s Antarctic Treaty Conference, and what are some expected outcomes?

Bochkarev: It is unlikely that the treaty will be abandoned or significantly changed, as neither the U.S. nor Russia are interested in such an outcome. The other countries with territorial claims have divergent views and no clear vision or political will to challenge the status quo. So they would not be able to reach the critical mass necessary for substantial changes. Despite the Arctic and Antarctica being the world’s biggest untapped reserves of mineral resources, the fragility of the world economy significantly reduced economic interest in both regions’ resources.

Political interests around the South Pole are too divergent, too, and would not allow the Antarctic to follow the example of Svabald, which first was declared a neutral zone, before becoming a part of Norway in 1920.

The only political intrigue now seems to be the future of Australia and New Zealand’s bids to extend their continental shelf towards the Antarctic territory and their possible interference with the Antarctic Treaty.

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