Protection of the White Continent: The Antarctic Treaty System of 1959

Written by Jack Bennett.

In the depths of the Cold War in 1959, the ice-covered landmass became a focus of international diplomacy with the three nuclear-weapon states of the USA, USSR and Britain establishing a model to ensure the nuclear-free, peaceful scientific cooperation and protection of Antarctica. This produced a new, globalised governance regime through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Threatened by commercial fishing and resource exploitation due to improved scientific knowledge and more advanced equipment gaining greater access to Antarctica, the global diplomatic community aimed to ensure its sustainable, demilitarised and collaborative governance. Space was not the only frontier in which an international race was sparked: science became a collaborative enterprise with Antarctica the experimental station of Cold War scientific diplomacy. 

By the 1940s, the claimant club grew as Argentina and Chile joined two other European states; France and Norway. The USA and the Soviet Union did not recognise the legitimacy of any of these territorial claims. After the Second World War there emerged a new era of rising territorial and resource competition: in particular, the strategic importance of certain minerals created conflict arising from contested sovereignty. The issue of sovereignty over Antarctica was resolved in December, 1959 when 12 nations (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the USA and USSR) signed up to the Antarctic Treaty. This formalised and guaranteed free access and research rights so that all countries could work together for the common cause of scientific research and exchange of ideas. However, claimant states such as Australia and Argentina struggled to reconcile their own concerns about the future role of the superpowers. The treaty, which applies to the area south of 60degrees south-latitude, is surprisingly short but remarkably effective. The New York Herald Tribune reported that the treaty was a cause for ‘enduring hope’. The treaty system ensures the use of the continent strictly for peaceful purposes and promotes international cooperation to ensure the protection and sustainability of Antarctica. 

Permanent stations were established during the 1950s to commence the first substantial multi-nation research program during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. Territorial positions were also asserted, though not agreed, creating a tension that threatened future scientific co-operation and potential conflict. The USSR showed off its polar prowess when it set up several bases, including one at the magnetic south pole and another at the most difficult spot to reach on the continent, the so-called ‘Pole of Inaccessibility’. With the IGY set to expire at the end of the year, Washington worried that Moscow would carve out a menacing military presence in Antarctica. As a consequence of disputes over ownership, the Antarctic Treaty agreement was signed by the nations that had been active on the continent during the IGY in order to avoid disagreements and conflicts, resolve disputes over ownership and mining rights and establish guidelines limiting development on the continent. Critically, the treaty occurred in a brief thaw in East-West tensions that had emerged during Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the USA in September 1959.

The treaty acknowledged that the demilitarisation and denuclearisation of Antarctica could forge a precedent for future international relations. Argentina and Chile played critical roles in the treaty as it also served as a precedent for agreements in other contested areas, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and seven other zones free of atomic weapons. It is difficult to estimate how important the ban on nuclear weapons was alongside the prohibition on military activity. Cold War historiography demonstrates the catalytic power of science and scientific co-operation: it was the arms control element of the Antarctic Treaty that really underpinned peaceful governance. In part, the USA hoped to use the treaty to score a Cold War propaganda victory, keep Soviet missiles out of Antarctica and block communist China from gaining an unregulated foothold in the continent. However, the agreement still allowed for the peaceful uses of nuclear power, and from 1962 to 1972 the USA operated a defective nuclear reactor at McMurdo Station that contaminated over 12 thousand tons of soil. 

From the 1960s onwards the treaty confronted resource-related questions. Conventions on sealing, fishing, environmental protections and, controversially, mining were developed, with large acceptance from the international community. The proposal for a mining regulation was publicly rejected by Australia and France in the late 1980s in favour of a protocol on environmental protection. Mining was banned and priority was placed on developing an effective regime of environmental conservation. Tension was high in the 1980s as new players such as China and India began to make their presence felt in Antarctica and environmental groups such as Greenpeace demanded an end to whaling and a permanent ban on mining. This culminated in the 1991 Madrid protocol, which prohibited mining and made all continental activities subject to an environmental assessment.

Since coming into force on 23 June 1961, the treaty has been recognised as one of the most successful international agreements and a vehicle of cooperation of Cold War-era detente. Problematic differences over territorial claims have been effectively set aside and as a disarmament regime it has been outstandingly successful. Since then, the initial 12 signatories have risen to over 50, and the continent has remained largely free of military activity and has endured as a nuclear-free zone. But, the future of the ‘white continent’ remains contentious: continuing geo-political tensions, disputes over ownership and pressures from climate change all threaten it.

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