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The Antarctic Treaty System has long been hailed as an example of successful international cooperation. But could that be at risk?

Antarctica is the last unmined frontier on Earth but could that soon change? : Unsplash: James Eades Unsplash Licence Antarctica is the last unmined frontier on Earth but could that soon change? : Unsplash: James Eades Unsplash Licence

The Antarctic Treaty System has long been hailed as an example of successful international cooperation. But could that be at risk?

It’s been hot in Kochi, in southern India, where representatives from at least 60 nations have gathered for two important meetings on the future of the world’s coldest continent, Antarctica.

The 46th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and accompanying 26th Meeting of the Committee for Environmental Protection also attracts observers from several non-governmental organisations with an interest in the regulation of Antarctic tourism and the protection of its environment.

But unlike the temperatures outside, the atmosphere inside the meeting venue has been frosty following recent reports Russia has discovered vast amounts of oil and gas in the British Antarctic Territory.

Mining activities in Antarctica are banned under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which was adopted in 1991, with Australia playing a lead role.

Russia’s activities are worrying other countries that fear they will essentially be ripping up the treaty if prospecting goes any further.

Which all sets the stage for an interesting meeting about a part of the world more critical to Australia’s national interests than you might realise.

The Antarctica Consultative Meetings are regular annual meetings of the states party to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

The meetings are where states conduct the business of collectively implementing the treaty, which is the cornerstone of the governance system for Antarctica, known as the Antarctic Treaty System.

The Antarctic Treaty was considered a diplomatic triumph at the height of the Cold War.

Concerned that the continent might become a place of conflict, the original 12 states meeting in Washington DC who signed the treaty agreed to use Antarctica for peaceful purposes only.

The treaty does permit the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes, but prohibits measures of a military nature such as the carrying out of military manoeuvres or weapons testing.

Perhaps the most fundamental question addressed by the treaty is that of the geopolitical status of the continent.

Seven states had made claims to specific portions of Antarctica — Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Some of the claims overlap.

The situation was complicated further by the fact that neither the United States nor the then-USSR had made a formal claim.

Australia has territorial rights to the Australian Antarctic Territory, which covers 42 percent of the Antarctic continent.

Contrary to popular opinion, the fact that few other countries have explicitly recognised Australia’s title does not detract from its legal validity.

The treaty includes an agreement to disagree on the question of territorial sovereignty. Australia is not required to renounce its sovereignty but neither are other states required to respect our territorial title during the life of the treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty is therefore of particular importance to Australia because it protects Australia’s legal rights in respect of the Australian Antarctic Territory. Australia is an active and strong participant within the treaty system.

The treaty has been widely hailed as an example of successful international cooperation.

It is easy to assume that harmony in respect of Antarctica was — and will continue to be — guaranteed by its remoteness, and to underestimate the significant achievement of the treaty system.

But shifting geopolitics and a changing climate could both impact this final frontier, which would have implications for the whole world.

The 2023 meeting adopted a Declaration on Climate Change and also agreed to new wording for the website of the treaty system — both of which can be understood in part as responding to the common misapprehension that the prohibition on mineral resource activities, other than scientific research, will come to an end in 2048.

The prohibition has no end date. Any party can request its review from 2048 onwards, but overturning the ban would involve a relatively complex process that is by no means guaranteed to succeed.

Political tensions are felt at the meetings, although more in respect of those issues with higher stakes. Both Russia and Ukraine are parties to the treaty and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has caused some antagonism.

Russia prepared a paper for the 2023 meeting, which addressed what it referred to as the “politicisation” of the gathering.

There are concerns that even before we reach 2048, greyzone activities — nefarious or coercive activities that stop short of overtly breaching established rules and norms — may weaken the force of those norms or even lead to a complete breakdown of the treaty system.

One of the most obvious rules in relation to which there could be greyzone activities is that of prospecting versus scientific research.

The alarm greeting Russia’s reported oil and gas activities can be understood in this light.

There are also concerns regarding China’s Antarctic ambitions, both in respect of dual use technology and also in terms of China’s aim for far greater access to the resources of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

Earlier this year China opened its fifth Antarctic facility, the Qinling Station, on Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea.

Australia’s official Antarctic priorities or interests are set out in the 2022 update of the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 10 Year Action Plan.

There is also a current federal government inquiry into the importance of Antarctica to Australia’s national interests.

Due to our proximity to Antarctica, climatic changes there like the melting of Antarctic ice sheets and resulting rising sea levels, could have a profound impact on geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific.

There is even concern that the spread of bird flu to Antarctica could impact Australian poultry farms.

A strong Australian voice when it comes to matters of Antarctic governance remains critical for ensuring a peaceful and sustainable future for Antarctica.

Professor Shirley Scott is a Professor of International Law and International Relations in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra. Her research interests include Antarctic governance and non-militarisation. In 2023, Professor Scott was an academic observer with the Australian delegation to the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and 25th Meeting of the Committee for Environmental Protection.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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