Antarctic Treaty

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Antarctic Treaty


Antarctica is the coldest and least-inhabited continent, and its resources are difficult to reach. The SouthernOcean, which surrounds Antarctica, is stormy and laden with icebergs and seasonal sea-ice, while about 98% of Antarctica’s land surface is covered with an ice sheet over 1 mile (1.6 km) thick. Nevertheless, Antarctica does contain resources and is the only large landmass in the worldthat is not controlled by a national government. It hastherefore long beckoned to some nations as a possiblesource of new territory. Between 1908 and 1943, eightnationsincluding the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Norway, Australia, Chile, andArgentinaclaimed large, pie-slice-shaped chunks ofAntarctica as their own. In 1959, to prevent escalatingdisputes over these claims, these nations and four otherssigned the Antarctic Treaty. Along with several lateragreements, known collectively as the Antarctic TreatySystem, the treaty still controls international relations inAntarctica. The Treaty System postpones disputes aboutownership, forbids all military action (including nuclearweapons testing and the establishment of military bases), and encourages the preservation of the Antarctic environment as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science” (as stated in the Protocol on EnvironmentalProtection to the Antarctic Treaty).

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The eight nations that claimed slices of Antarctica prior to 1944 were not equipped to do much with the territory that they alleged was theirs. The continent was too inaccessible, its conditions too extreme, for mining or drilling with the technology of the day; agriculture (and therefore colonization) was impossible. However, as the Cold War (1945–1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified after World War II (1939–1945), there was wide concern that the superpowers might also lay claim to parts of the continent—or, indeed, to the whole thing—and seek to use it as a base for naval or airborne operations, possibly leading to conflict.

At the height of these tensions, scientists around the world, working with their governments, arranged a global cooperative scientific effort called the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958). For the first time in history, hostile nations strove to out-do each other not on the battlefield but in conducting fruitful earth science research. Many temporary scientific bases were established in Antarctica for the International Geophysical Year, and a dozen countries (including all the territory claimants) cooperated in the establishment and operation of these bases. So successful were these efforts that it was decided to formalize the status of Antarctica as a realm of science, forbidding military operations there and protecting the continent as a sort of world science park.

The outcome of this ambition was the Antarctic Treaty, originally signed by twelve nations (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States) in Washington, D.C., on December 1, 1959, and affirmed by 46 countries by 2008. The treaty entered into force on June 23, 1961. It has been outstandingly successful, with no significant violations of its terms by any parties. In the treaty’s words, its signatories recognize “that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.”

The treaty applies to all seas and territories south of 60° south latitude. This takes in about 10% of the world’s land area and about 10% of its ocean area. Its most important provisions are as follows: (1) All military


ANTARCTIC TREATY: A 1959 series of agreements regulating international relations in Antarctica, establishing the area as a demilitarized zone to promote open scientific research.

KRILL: Small marine crustaceans of the order Euphausiacea, which are consumed as food by certain whales.

PLANKTON: Floating animal and plant life.

activity in Antarctica is forbidden. (2) Signing the treaty does not “prejudice” (have any negative implicationsfor) claims to territory; however, these claims are set aside for the duration of the treaty, which has no setexpiration date. (3) Nuclear weapons and the dumping of nuclear waste are forbidden. (4) All bases, aircraft, andvessels in Antarctica are open to inspection by othermembers of the treaty.

All treaty parties send representatives once a year to gatherings called Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, where information is exchanged, new agreements are discussed, and decisions are made regarding the governance of Antarctica. These decisions cover shipping guidelines, designation of special “protected areas” (historic sites, breeding grounds, areas of special scientific interest, etc.), regulation of tourism, and the like. The United States also has a federal domestic law, the Antarctic Conservation Act (1978), which applies to U.S. citizens and to Antarctic expeditions launched from U.S. territory. This law is designed to protect Antarctic ecosystems, and forbids the killing or capture of native animals, the transport of garbage or toxic wastes to Antarctica, and entry into protected areas.

Impacts and Issues

The Antarctic Treaty has given rise to several additional agreements that have extended and strengthened the original pact. These include the following:

  • The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (adopted 1972; entered into force, 1978) forbids hunting of fur seals, elephant seals, and Ross seals of Antarctica, and places limits on killing “for scientific research” of crabeater seals, leopard seals, and Weddell seals.
  • The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (adopted 1980; entered into force, 1982) limits fishing for krill in Antarctic and some other waters. Krill (tiny shrimp-like animals that feed on plankton) are the basis of the Antarctic food chain, which culminates in penguins, seals, albatross, blue whales, and other spectacular predators.
  • The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (adopted 1991; entered into force, 1998) replaced the failed Convention for the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (opened for signature in 1988). Unlike the failed convention, which a number of nations refused to ratify, the protocol declares Antarctica a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science” and forbids all mining indefinitely.

The highly successful Antarctic Treaty System has been proposed as a model for an Arctic Treaty. In recent years, international tensions have risen around the Arctic with the accelerated melting of the polar ice cap due to anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming, which makes the area more accessible. In 2007, Russia planted a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole and claimed the territory as its own, including its oil and gas reserves—a claim disallowed by other states, including the United States and Canada. Canada has commenced a $7 billion program to build armed boats to patrol the rapidly opening Arctic waters. Some experts have suggested that an Arctic Treaty modeled on the Antarctic Treaty might relieve such tensions. However, as of 2008 no negotiations for such a treaty had been planned.

Primary Source Connection

From July 1957 to December 1958, an unprecedented international cooperative effort to study Earth and the environment was launched. This event, called the International Geophysical Year (IGY) led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts and seismic rifts along the ocean floors, as well as an improved understanding of cosmic rays and Earth’s magnetic field. As the largest international scientific effort ever undertaken, the IGY also produced an international agreement governing the use of Antarctica. This international treaty declared the Antarctic continent a permanent non-military zone, reserved for scientific efforts only.

The Antarctic Treaty made the Antarctic continent a politically unique region, free of national territorial claims. Further, the treaty specifically prohibited military use of the area, protecting it from some of the abuses suffered by other regions during the Cold War. However, given the unimaginably harsh conditions found near the South Pole, where temperatures often reach -100°F (-73°C), it seems likely the Superpowers would have largely ignored this area even without the treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty was signed by representatives of twelve nations in 1959. The official document is currently stored in the archives of the U.S. government.


The Governments of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, the French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Union of South Africa, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America,

Recognizing that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord;

Acknowledging the substantial contributions to scientific knowledge resulting from international cooperation in scientific investigation in Antarctica;

Convinced that the establishment of a firm foundation for the continuation and development of such cooperation on the basis of freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica as applied during the International Geophysical Year accords with the interests of science and the progress of all mankind;

Convinced also that a treaty ensuring the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only and the continuance of international harmony in Antarctica will further the purposes and principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations;

Have agreed as follows:


1. Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, inter alia, any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.

2. The present Treaty shall not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes.


Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end, as applied during the International Geophysical Year, shall continue, subject to the provisions of the present Treaty.


1. In order to promote international cooperation in scientific investigation in Antarctica, as provided for in Article II of the present Treaty, the Contracting Parties agree that, to the greatest extent feasible and practicable:

  1. information regarding plans for scientific programs in Antarctica shall be exchanged to permit maximum economy and efficiency of operations;
  2. scientific personnel shall be exchanged in Antarctica between expeditions and stations;
  3. scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.

2. In implementing this Article, every encouragement shall be given to the establishment of cooperative working relations with those Specialized Agencies of the United Nations and other international organizations having a scientific or technical interest in Antarctica.


1. Nothing contained in the present Treaty shall be interpreted as:

  1. a renunciation by any Contracting Party of previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica;
  2. a renunciation or diminution by any Contracting Party of any basis of claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica which it may have whether as a result of its activities or those of its nationals in Antarctica, or otherwise;
  3. prejudicing the position of any Contracting Party as regards its recognition or nonrecognition of any other State’s right of or claim or basis of claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica.

2. 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. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim, to territorial sovereignty shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.


1. Any nuclear explosions in Antarctica and the disposal there of radioactive waste material shall be prohibited.

2. In the event of the conclusion of international agreements concerning the use of nuclear energy, including nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste material, to which all of the Contracting Parties whose representatives are entitled to participate in the meetings provided for under Article IX are parties, the rules established under such agreements shall apply in Antarctica.


The provisions of the present Treaty shall apply to the area south of 60° South latitude, including all ice shelves, but nothing in the present Treaty shall prejudice or in any way affect the rights, or the exercise of the rights, of any State under international law with regard to the high seas within that area.


1. In order to promote the objectives and ensure the observation of the provisions of the present Treaty, each Contracting Party whose representatives are entitled to participate in the meetings referred to in Article IX of the Treaty shall have the right to designate observers to carry out any inspection provided for by the present Article. Observers shall be nationals of the Contracting Parties which designate them. The names of the observers shall be communicated to every other Contracting Party having the right to designate observers, and like notice shall be given of the termination of their appointment.

2. Each observer designated in accordance with the provisions of paragraph 1 of this Article shall have complete freedom of access at any time to any or all areas of Antarctica.

3. All areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations and equipment within those areas, and all ships and aircraft at points of discharging or embarking cargoes or personnel in Antarctica, shall be open at all times to inspection by any observers designated in accordance with paragraph 1 of this Article.

4. Aerial observation may be carried out at any time over any or all areas of Antarctica by any of the Contracting Parties having the right to designate observers.

5. Each Contracting Party shall, at the time when the present Treaty enters into force for it, inform the other Contracting Parties, and thereafter shall give them notice in advance, of

  1. all expeditions to and within Antarctica, on the part of its ships of nationals, and all expeditions to Antarctica organized in or proceeding from its territory;
  2. all stations in Antarctica occupied by its nationals; and
  3. any military personnel or equipment intended to be introduced by it into Antarctica subject to the conditions prescribed in paragraph 2 of Article I of the present Treaty.


1. In order to facilitate the exercise of their functions under the present Treaty, and without prejudice to the respective positions of the Contracting Parties relating to jurisdiction over all other persons in Antarctica, observers designated under paragraph 1 of Article VII and scientific personnel exchanged under subparagraph 1(b) of Article III of the Treaty, and members of the staffs accompanying any such persons, shall be subject only to the jurisdiction of the Contracting Party of which they are nationals in respect to all acts or omissions occurring while they are in Antarctica for the purpose of exercising their functions.

2. Without prejudice to the provisions of paragraph 1 of this Article, and pending the adoption of measures in pursuance of subparagraph 1(e) of Article IX, the Contracting Parties concerned in any case of dispute with regard to the exercise of jurisdiction in Antarctica shall immediately consult together with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable solution.


1. Representatives of the Contracting Parties named in the preamble to the present Treaty shall meet at the City of Canberra within two months after date of entry into force of the Treaty, and thereafter at suitable intervals and places, for the purpose of exchanging information, consulting together on matters of common interest pertaining to Antarctica, and formulating and considering, and recommending to their Governments, measures in furtherance of the principles and objectives of the Treaty including measures regarding:

  1. use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only;
  2. facilitation of scientific research in Antarctica;
  3. facilitation of international scientific cooperation in Antarctica;
  4. facilitation of the exercise of the rights of inspection provided for in Article VII of the Treaty;
  5. questions relating to the exercise of jurisdiction in Antarctica;
  6. preservation and conservation of living resources in Antarctica.

Governments of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, the French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Union of South Africa, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain andNorthern Ireland, and the United States of America.


See Also Antarctic Issues and Challenges; Climate Change; Global Warming; Ice Cores; Ozone Hole



Stokke, Olav Schram, and Davor Vidas, eds. Governing the Antarctic: The Effectiveness and Legitimacy of the Antarctic Treaty System. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Triggs, Gillian, and Anna Riddell. Antarctica: Legal and Environmental Challenges for the Future. London: British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 2007.


Allison, Ian. “Antarctic Ice and the Global Climate System.” Australian Antarctic Magazine (Autumn 2002): 3-4.

Cazenave, Anny. “How Fast Are the Ice Sheets Melting?” Science 314 (2006): 1250–1252.

Cross, Michael. “Antarctica: Exploration or Exploitation?” New Scientist (June 22, 1991).

Web Sites

Antarctic Treaty Secretariat. (accessed April 8, 2008).

Antarctica New Zealand (Government of New Zealand). “History of the Antarctic Treaty.” (accessed April 8, 2008).

National Science Foundation (U.S. Government). “Antarctic Conservation Act.” (accessed Apri8, 2008).

National Science Foundation (U.S. Government). “The Antarctic Treaty.” (accessed April 8, 2008).

Larry Gilman