60th Anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty

United States representative, Herman Phleger, signs the Antarctic Treaty in December 1959.
United States representative, Herman Phleger, signs the Antarctic Treaty in December 1959.

Published Dec 1, 2019 1:47 AM by The Maritime Executive

The Antarctic Treaty, signed in Washington on December 1, 1959, enshrines Antarctica as a place of peace, science and international cooperation.

During the first half of the 20th century, a series of territorial claims were made to parts of Antarctica creating political tension. These tensions were eased by the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, the first substantial multi-national program of scientific research in Antarctica. The IGY was pivotal in recognizing the scientific value of Antarctica and in promoting cooperation among nations active in the region. It led to a series of meetings that resulted in the Antarctic Treaty.

Antarctica currently has no permanent population and therefore it has no citizenship nor government. The majority of Antarctica is claimed by one or more countries, but most countries do not explicitly recognize those claims. The 12 initial signatories had significant interests in Antarctica at the time: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. There are now 54 Parties to the Treaty.

The Treaty entered into force on June 23, 1961 and applies to all land and ice-shelves south of 60° South latitude. In its 14 articles the Treaty:

• stipulates that Antarctica should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, military activities, such as the establishment of military bases or weapons testing, are specifically prohibited;
• guarantees continued freedom to conduct scientific research, as enjoyed during the IGY;
• promotes international scientific cooperation including the exchange of research plans and personnel, and requires that results of research be made freely available;
• sets aside the potential for sovereignty disputes between Treaty parties by providing that no activities will enhance or diminish previously asserted positions with respect to territorial claims, provides that no new or enlarged claims can be made, and makes rules relating to jurisdiction;
• prohibits nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste;
• provides for inspection by observers, designated by any party, of ships, stations and equipment in Antarctica to ensure the observance of, and compliance with, the Treaty;
• requires parties to give advance notice of their expeditions; provides for the parties to meet periodically to discuss measures to further the objectives of the Treaty; and
• puts in place a dispute settlement procedure and a mechanism by which the Treaty can be modified.

Since entering into force on 23 June 1961, the Treaty has been recognized as one of the most successful international agreements. Problematic differences over territorial claims have been effectively set aside and as a disarmament regime it has been outstandingly successful. Science is proceeding unhindered.

Since the first Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in 1961, the parties have met frequently, now annually, to discuss issues as diverse as scientific cooperation, measures to protect the environment, and operational issues.