Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty is an agreement made by 12 countries in 1959 to set aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establish freedom of scientific investigation, and ban military activity on the continent. It has since been signed by over 50 nations.

Formation of the Treaty

In the 1950s, several countries made conflicting territorial claims in Antarctica or asserted their right to make claims in the future. There was also interest in the potential mineral and hydrocarbon resources. This led to the international community realizing the need to set aside political disagreements and demilitarize the continent to ensure it was used for peaceful scientific purposes.

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington D.C on December 1, 1959 by the 12 countries that had been active in and made claims in Antarctica during what is known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration in the early 20th century. The original signatories were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. These countries became the “consultative parties” of the Treaty.

Key Components / Articles

The primary components of the Antarctic Treaty are:

  • Antarctica to be used for peaceful purposes only; military activity, such as weapons testing, is prohibited but military personnel and equipment may be used for scientific research or any other peaceful purpose. Freedom of scientific investigations and cooperation.
  • Free exchange of information and personnel in cooperation with the United Nations and other international agencies
  • The treaty does not recognize, dispute, nor establish territorial sovereignty claims; no new claims shall be asserted while the treaty is in force
  •  The treaty prohibits nuclear explosions or disposal of radioactive wastes
  • Includes under the treaty all land and ice shelves but not the surrounding waters south of 60 degrees 00 minutes south.
  • Allows for jurisdiction over observers and scientists by their own states
  • Frequent consultative meetings take place among member nations
  •  All treaty states will discourage activities by any country in Antarctica that are contrary to the treaty
  •  All disputes to be settled peacefully by the parties concerned or, ultimately, by the International Court of Justice

Evolution of the Treaty

Since 1959, the Antarctic Treaty has been augmented by separate agreements on conservation of seals and other living resources, as well as agreements relating to potential mining and oil drilling. Over 50 countries have now signed the Treaty. There are frequent meetings and constant diplomatic communication to resolve disagreements or differences in interpreting provisions of the Treaty.

Antarctic Treaty System

Antarctic Treaty was the founding document signed in 1959 setting aside Antarctica for science and peace. However, Antarctic Treaty System refers to the wider set of agreements that builds on the provisions of the original treaty to comprehensively manage Antarctica. It includes measures related to environmental protection, banning mining, rules for science cooperation and tourism etc.  The Antarctic Treaty System thus encompasses the original treaty as well as the following other treaties:

  • Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972)
  • Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (1980)
  • Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991)

It also includes various other associated rules and policies decided by consultative member countries over the decades.

Antarctic Treaty and India

India acceded to the Antarctic Treaty in 1983. The membership grants India the right to vote at the annual Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings where policies and management of Antarctica are decided. India has built research stations in Antarctica – Dakshin Gangotri (1983) and later Maitri (1989). The National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research coordinates India’s research activities in the Polar Regions. Through scientific and diplomatic cooperation, India upholds the Antarctic Treaty’s principles of demilitarization and peaceful scientific exploration of Antarctica.

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