Polar politics and commerce
WOR 6 The Arctic and Antarctic - Extreme, Climatically Crucial and In Crisis | 2019

The Arctic and Antarctic as political arenas

The Arctic and Antarctic as political arenas © Gatto Images/Getty Images

The Arctic and Antarctic as political arenas

> Historically, cooperation and willingness to compromise have charac­terized the political agenda of the polar regions. Since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, the southern polar region has been managed on a collective basis. The countries with a stake in the Arctic have since 1996 coordinated fundamental policy issues in the Arctic Council. Yet both dialogue forums face challenges as a result of climate change and global geopolitical developments. The more the ice retreats, the louder do calls for commercial exploitation of the polar regions become.

Paradigm shift and new geopolitical interests

The polar regions are currently undergoing a fundamental shift in their significance. With the advance of climate change and the growing sophistication of the technology behind ships, aircraft, buildings, information channels and communication methods, humans are becoming ever more successful at enlarging their range of activity in the Arctic and Antarctic. In both regions significantly more states and stakeholders are now active than was the case just a ­couple of decades ago – and each is pursuing its own interests. Climate change has set in motion something akin to a geopolitical chain reaction that is presenting both the countries surrounding the Arctic and the member states of the Antarctic Treaty System with new challenges.
5.1 > An icebreaker escorts tankers and cargo vessels through Russia’s Arctic waters. This escort service is expensive yet is required by the Russian authorities: This is one of several reasons why shipping companies have until now made little or no use of the Northeast Passage as a route between Europe and Asia.
fig. 5.1 © PAO Sovcomflot, http://sovcomflot.ru

Easier access as the sea ice retreats

The shrinking of the sea ice makes it easier for people and ships to access the Arctic and Antarctic regions. In August 2014, for example, unusual ice conditions in the eastern central Arctic enabled the German cruise ship Hanseatic to reach a position 85° 41' North, thus setting a new record for passenger ships. According to observers, there are also large parts of the Antarctic that can no longer be regarded as remote and untouched. Decades of whale and seal hunting, the ozone hole caused by human activity and the many traces that scientists, fishermen and tourists have now left in the Antarctic provide confirmation of this statement.

Commercial interests

The larger the areas of water and land that are laid bare by the shrinking ice masses of the Arctic and Antarctic, the more eagerly do a whole range of commercially oriented stakeholders and interest groups – travel companies, fishing fleets, mineral exploration companies, shipping companies and the like – covet the newly emerging opportunities. For example, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) calculates that 22 per cent of the world’s unconfirmed oil and gas reserves lie north of the Arctic Circle. Shipping companies such as the Danish conglomerate Mærsk are already testing the feasibility of using the Northeast Passage as a route for cargo vessels travelling between northern Europe and the Indo-Pacific – in the hope that this will one day save considerable time and money.

Security concerns

As the sea ice melts, the countries with an Arctic coastline are losing a natural barrier that some observers regard as having protected them from military invasion from the north. This new security situation is said to be causing the Nordic countries some concern: Alongside increasing economic activity in the Arctic there is also a growth in military operations and latent conflicts could re-erupt. For example, during the Cold War the Arctic was a key theatre of military confrontation between the two then superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union. Both sides maintained large military bases and rocket launching pads north of the Arctic Circle. Almost all these sites were shut down under the policy of détente of the 1990s, but ­climate change and the current debate on sea routes and rights of passage could result in a renewed build-up of military ­presence in the northern regions of the countries bordering the Arctic.
5.2 > The buildings of a new military base erected by Russia on Alexandra Land, an Arctic island that forms part of Franz Josef Land, stand on stilts. The base, which covers 14,000 square metres, houses air-defence units.
fig. 5.2 © picture alliance/Tass/TASS/dpa

Attracting international attention and research

At the same time, the extent of climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic is attracting the attention of scientists and environmentalists. With a constant stream of new research findings, scientists are making the public ever more aware of the state of the polar regions, while environmentalists worldwide are campaigning for their protection. Their core message is that it is in the Arctic and Antarctic that the future of our planet is being decided.
All these developments indicate that the polar re­gions – especially the Arctic – are becoming geopolitical arenas in which a growing number of stakeholders have ambitions and concerns. At the same time, the super­powers have resumed their competition for power and influence in these regions: This sometimes hampers what used to be extremely well-functioning international ­cooperation in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Munich Security Conference
The Munich Security Conference (MSC), a globally important forum for debate on international security policy, is held in Munich every February. It aims to promote peace through dialogue and provides politicians and representatives of business, industry and civil society with a platform for official and unofficial diplomatic initiatives. The main conference is accompanied by side events at which specific issues and regions are discussed. One such event is the Arctic Security Roundtable.

Who governs the Arctic?

The question of who has a political say has a different answer in the Arctic than in the Antarctic, which is ­managed collectively. The reason for this is once again the ­differing location of the two regions. The Arctic is geo­graphically delimited by the Arctic Circle. Large parts of the Arctic region lie within the territory of eight counties: Canada, Russia, the USA (via the state of Alaska), Norway, Denmark (because of its close links with the actual Arctic state, Greenland), Iceland, Sweden and Finland. Among these eight countries, Iceland, Sweden and Finland differ from the others in that they have no direct access to the Arctic Ocean. The only Arctic states in the narrower geographical sense – i.e. with direct access to the Arctic Ocean – are therefore Denmark (Greenland), Canada, Norway (Svalbard), Russia and the USA (Alaska). They are termed the Arctic Five, as distinct from the group of eight countries with territory inside the Arctic Circle.
Although the Arctic states are spread across three continents, all eight nations are part of a community of culture, norms and values and are linked in various ways – whether as a result of environmental and climate-related concerns, because of economic, security-related and social issues or on account of their indigenous populations in the Arctic territories. The nations therefore debate important matters of common interest in the Arctic Council: since the 1996 Ottawa Declaration this has been the leading intergovernmental forum for the Arctic and has promoted and coordinated cooperation among the Arctic states, the indigenous population and other inhabitants of the Arctic. In its work the Arctic Council focuses largely on sustain­able development of the Arctic region and on environmental issues. Military and security issues are explicitly ex­cluded from its agenda: these are instead discussed in forums such as the twice-yearly meetings of the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR), at events of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) or at the Arctic Security Roundtable organized by the Munich Security Conference in collaboration with various partners.
In addition to the eight member states, six organizations that represent the interests of indigenous Arctic peoples have the status of Permanent Participants on the Council. Decisions require the approval of all members and involve close consultation with the Permanent Participants. However, the Council’s guidelines and recommendations are not legally binding: implementation of any resolutions is entirely at the discretion of individual member states.
Many observers, though, regard the fact that the decisions of the Arctic Council are not legally binding as a strength rather than a weakness, since it allows for swift and flexible adaptation in a rapidly changing environment. Moreover, the Arctic Council has in the past ­initiated the signing of three legally binding multilateral agreements. In 2011 the Arctic states signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic; this was followed two years later by the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response and in 2017 by the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scien­tific Cooperation.
Meetings of the Arctic Council are attended not only by representatives of the member states and the Permanent Participants but also by the spokespersons of the working groups, of which there are currently six. The working groups regularly draw up comprehensive and groundbreaking status reports on various social and environmental aspects of the Arctic. These provide the Arctic states with recommendations for action and are also used as an important source of information worldwide.

Extra Info A zone of peace

Representatives of 13 non-Arctic states, 14 inter­governmental organizations and twelve international ­non-governmental organizations are also permitted to attend the Council’s sessions as observers. The countries with observer status currently include Germany, China, France, India, Poland, Japan and the United Kingdom. ­These ­observer states hope that their participation will increase their international visibility and give them direct access to information on Arctic issues. In return, the Arctic Council expects them to become involved in the various working groups and support their work. For example, Germany now sends scientists and experts to all six of the Council’s working groups and, with the Netherlands, it funds the post of coordinator of the bird conservation programme operated by the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group. The observers are required to report regularly on their activities. On the basis of these reports, the eight members of the Arctic Council then decide whether or not a state’s observer status should be ­retained. However, no state has yet had this status ­withdrawn.
The issues on which the Arctic Council focuses are determined mainly by the programme of the member state that is chairing the Council. The chairmanship rotates among the eight Arctic states every two years. In May 2019 Finland handed the chairmanship of the forum over to Iceland, which has adopted “Together Towards a Sus­tainable Arctic“ as the theme of its two-year term.
Some experts now consider that the basic principle of the Arctic Council, namely that it is a forum for discussing issues of common interest on the basis of scientific recommendations and agreeing uniform recommendations for action by all members states, is a success story. In January 2018 a group of political scientists and security experts even nominated the Arctic Council for the Nobel Peace Prize, arguing that in view of the international impact of the growing political tension between the superpowers, it is important to highlight the cooperation that the Arctic Council can achieve.

Defining boundaries in the Arctic

Despite the key position of the Arctic Council and its eight member states, there are areas of Arctic management and decision-making in which the five littoral states have a particular role. In particular, the United Nations Conven­tion on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gives them extensive sovereignty and jurisdiction over the coastal waters, the exclusive economic zones and large areas of the seabed on the Arctic continental shelf. UNCLOS, which was concluded in 1982, is a com-prehensive set of rules on the use and protection of the seas; for this reason it is sometimes called the “constitution of the seas”. Of the five Arctic coastal states, only the USA has not yet ratified this convention. In May 2008, however, the US government signed the Ilulissat Declaration, thereby undertaking to settle all issues affecting the Arctic Ocean jointly and peacefully with the other Arctic coastal states on the basis of the law of the sea.
fig. 5.4 © maribus

5.4 > The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) divides the sea into various legal zones, with the state’s sovereignty decreasing with increasing distance from the coast. Adjacent to the internal waters is the terri-torial sea, also known as the 12-nautical-mile zone. In this region the sovereignty of the coastal state is already ­restricted, as ships of all states enjoy the right of innocent passage through it. In the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends for up to 200 nautical miles from the coast, the coas-tal state has the exclusive right to explore and exploit living and non-living resources. This means that it is entitled to utilize any oil and gas fields, mineral resources and fish stocks found here. On the continental shelf, which is a natural ­prolongation of a country’s land territory and may extend ­beyond the exclusive economic zone, the coastal state can explore and exploit the resources on the seabed. Beyond the exclusive economic zone is the maritime zone known as the high seas.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea sets out the definition of various maritime zones and the correspond­ing extent of certain sovereign rights of the coastal states. These zones are:
  • internal waters and the territorial sea,
  • the contiguous zone,
  • the exclusive economic zone,
  • the continental shelf and
  • the high seas.

Internal waters and the territorial sea

Saline waters landward of the baseline or low-water mark are defined as internal waters. The territorial sea, by contrast, is on the seaward side of the baseline and extends for up to twelve nautical miles (one nautical mile is 1852 metres). States have complete sovereignty over their internal waters because – like the territorial sea – they form part of its territory. Nations also have wide-ranging sovereignty over their territorial sea; this includes rights to the airspace above, the water column, the seabed and the ground below the seabed. However, a coastal state may not prohibit the innocent passage of foreign ships through its territorial sea.
Passage is considered innocent if, while passing through the territorial sea, the ship in question does not use or threaten violence, does not spy on the coastal state and does not at any time pose a threat to the security of the coastal state in any other way. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defines potential threats in detail: for example, submarines must surface for the passage and hoist their flag. The Convention also prohibits unlawful discharges and other forms of marine pollution. The ­coastal state may designate shipping channels that must be used for passage and can levy charges if it provides ­services that enhance the safety of shipping. However, when designating shipping channels and traffic separation schemes, it must heed the recommendations of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The baseline normally runs along the coastal low-water line and thus corresponds to the mean low-water line as marked on official charts.

Article 37 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that the coastal state must grant foreign ships right of transit passage if the territorial sea is part of a strait or waterway that links parts of the high seas or different exclusive economic zones with each other and is used by international shipping. Coastal states have less scope for restricting the right of transit passage than for curbing innocent passage: in principle, transiting ships have the same freedom as on the high seas. Transit passage can be suspended or restricted only in the event of the threat or exercise of military force by the ship. Submarines can be submerged while passing through straits.
The question of whether foreign ships have a right to undisturbed transit passage is a regular source of dispute in the Arctic. This occurs, for example, in connection with the territorial waters of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, through which the Northwest Passage runs, and the waters off the Russian Arctic coast, where the Northeast Passage routes pass through. Ships wanting to traverse Russia’s Arctic waters must comply with conditions laid down by the Russian government. The conditions that apply to foreign warships are particularly strict. For example, NATO military ships must notify their intention 45 days before the passage and must let a Russian pilot on board – something that, on account of security concerns, the US government categorically refuses to do. Washington argues that the law of the sea gives American warships the right to free, undisturbed (transit) passage. There is no sign of an end to this dispute.

The contiguous zone and exclusive economic zone

The contiguous zone adjoins the territorial sea, extending a maximum of 24 nautical miles beyond the low-water line. In this zone, coastal states may exercise certain powers of inspection and, for example, enforce customs regulations vis-à-vis third countries. Beyond the conti­guous zone is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which can extend up to 200 nautical miles from the low-water line. This zone does not form part of the coastal state’s sovereign territory. However, the coastal state has exclu­sive rights to fish in this area and to approve, erect and operate artificial islands and facilities such as oil drilling platforms and offshore wind farms. In this zone the coastal state has jurisdiction over marine conservation and marine research. This means that foreign states must obtain the consent of the coastal state if they wish to conduct scientific studies in the exclusive economic zone. However, a coastal state may not assert any territorial claims in its exclusive economic zone. Foreign nations have freedom of navigation in this area and may also lay submarine pipes and cables.
The Arctic states have defined the limits of the exclusive economic zones and have since the 1970s set out where they run in various bilateral and trilateral agreements. In only a few regions are these boundaries disputed. For ­example, Canada and the USA disagree about the precise course of their maritime boundaries in the Beaufort Sea.

The extended continental shelf

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sets out special rules on the continental shelf, which in large part lies below the exclusive economic zone. Like the exclusive economic zone, the continental shelf is an area of jurisdiction in which only the coastal state has the right to explore and exploit the natural resources. Under maritime law, any coastal state can declare the continental shelf in the exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles in width, even if in geological terms the shelf is ­narrower than this.
If the geological continental shelf extends beyond this 200-nautical-mile limit of the exclusive economic zone, the coastal state can under Article 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea extend the outer limit of the shelf. To do so it must make a submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), setting out the ­scientific data that show that the relevant part of the seabed and the ground beneath it constitute a natural extension of its land territory.
However, there are limits to this sort of extension: the new outer limit of the continental shelf must not be more than 350 nautical miles from the coastal state’s baseline or more than 100 nautical miles from the 2500-metre ­isobath. A combination of the two methods is permitted.
The delimitation of boundaries in the Arctic is complicated by the fact that three underwater ridges – the Lomonosov Ridge, the Gakkel Ridge and the Alpha-Mendeleev Ridge – run along the floor of the Arctic Ocean and necessitate a special ruling in the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Article 76 of the Convention distinguishes between submarine ridges and submarine elevations.
fig. 5.5 © Gatto Images/Getty Images

5.5 > A territorial bone of contention in the Arctic: both Denmark and Canada lay claim to Hans Island (in the middle of the picture). The island, 1.3 square kilometres in size, lies in the Kennedy Channel of the Nares Strait that separates Canada’s Ellesmere Island from the north coast of Greenland.
Depending on whether a ridge or an elevation is joined to a coastal state’s continental shelf, differing rules apply. If parts of the continental shelf run over a sub­marine ridge, only the 350-nautical-mile rule can be applied; the rule on the 2500-metre isobath cannot be invoked. However, if the continental shelf extends over a subma­rine elevation, both rules apply, since it can be assumed that the submarine elevation consists of the same material as the continental shelf. Submarine ridges, by contrast, usually consist of volcanic rock and are therefore of a material different from the continental shelf.
These complex rules in the Convention on the Law of the Sea make the work of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf more difficult. The Commission considers all submitted applications and makes a recommendation. If the coastal state adjusts the outer limit of its expanded economic zone in accordance with the recommendation, this outer limit is final and binding. What is not clear is what happens if a coastal state opposes the Commission’s recommendation and sets an outer limit that is not in accordance with the recommendation. The Commission is not a body with judicial powers: its pur­pose is only to ensure that the delimitation of boundaries complies with scientific standards.
The prospect of extending the continental shelf and with it the exclusive right to mineral deposits in the seabed has resulted in all the Arctic coastal states that are parties to the Convention on the Law of the Sea applying for extensions. Norway was granted an extension of parts of its continental shelf in 2009. Russia, Denmark and Canada have spent many years attempting to prove – on the basis of seismological studies – that the Lomonosov Ridge and the Alpha-Mendeleev Ridge are submarine elevations and hence natural geological continuations of their continental shelves. On 23 May 2019 Canada submitted to the UN Commission a 2100-page application in which it lays claim to an area of the sea covering 1.2 million square kilometres and including the geographical North Pole. Russia and Denmark had previously submitted similar-sounding claims in their applications. As yet, however, the Commission has not issued recommendations on any of the applications, because it takes several years to consider them and reach a decision.

Extra Info Overlapping claims from Arctic coastal states to areas of the seabed

Moreover, the Commission is not responsible for situations in which two coastal states with opposing or adjacent coastlines argue over the precise boundary of their continental shelves or over overlapping areas to which they lay claim. In such cases the Convention on the Law of the Sea requires the countries involved to conclude one or more boundary agreements. In other words, the states need to sort out these disputes among themselves. If this were to fail, the dispute could be settled by an international court such as the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – provided that the countries involved recognize its legal authority.
In the past, the willingness of the Arctic coastal states to negotiate and compromise has enabled boundary disputes and border conflicts to be resolved. Thus in September 2010 Norway and Russia signed an agreement that put an end to four decades of argument over the boundary of their adjacent economic zones and continental shelves in the Barents Sea, which is rich in minerals and resources. The boundary that has been agreed upon gives equal weight to the claims of both countries. The two parties also agreed that any new, previously undiscovered re­source deposits that straddle the boundary would be exploited jointly.

The high seas

The high seas commence at the outer limit of the exclusive economic zone. Here all states have the freedom of the high seas: ships have free passage and aircraft have the right to overfly. In addition, anyone can fish or conduct research in these areas. However, all activities must be peaceful in nature. By contrast, the seabed beyond the ­coastal states’ continental shelf and all the resources it ­contains are part of the common heritage of mankind to which no state and no natural or judicial person can claim sovereign rights. This area and its resources are managed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA). In the Arctic, however, this status applies only to two small regions in the central Arctic Ocean; all other marine areas are ­claimed by one or more coastal states.
In addition, Svalbard plays a special role in Arctic agreements. The sovereignty of this archipelago east of Greenland is regulated in the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920. While Svalbard is formally under the governance of Norway, all parties to the Spitsbergen Treaty have the same rights as the Norwegians to make peaceful use of the archipelago’s resources and to work, trade and engage in shipping there. In addition, citizens of all treaty signatory countries enjoy free access to the archipelago. To date, 46 countries have signed the treaty. However, the situation with regard to the marine areas around Svalbard is unresolved. On the one hand, the exclusive economic zone around the archipelago is indisputably under the jurisdic­tion of Norway. On the other hand, there is as yet no answer to the question of whether the Spitsbergen Treaty, with its agreed principle of equal resource rights for all signatory states, also applies to this marine area. The ­question is an important one, especially with regard to the future use of the predicted oil and gas reserves in the ­northern Barents Sea. Oil companies do not yet have access to this region, but there is considerable long-term interest in opening up the area for oil and gas exploration, which means that ­there is potential for conflict.

The club of the Antarctic nations

Unlike the Arctic region, the continent of Antarctica is a long way from the coasts and borders of any nation states. This is often used as a reason to portray the southern continent and the surrounding ocean areas as detached from international politics and commercial activities. Upon ­closer consideration, however, it quickly becomes clear that the southern polar region is indeed a political arena whose complex history must always be viewed against the backdrop of international politics – then as now.
The legal framework of Antarctica as a political arena is set out in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). This consists of the Antarctic Treaty itself, augmented by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, and by two conventions dealing with the conservation of Antarctic seals and the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources. Negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty was prompted by the USA; the document was signed by ­twelve nations on 1 December 1959 and entered into force roughly 18 months later, on 23 June 1961. The twelve ­original signatories were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Union of South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States and the USSR.
Conclusion of the treaty represented a historical ­breakthrough on two fronts. Firstly, in the middle of the Cold War that succeeded the Second World War, the Antarctic Treaty was the first international agreement to bring the divided and highly militarized eastern and western powers together around the negotiating table, where they agreed on joint use of the area south of 60° South for peaceful purposes and research. Both sides had previously threatened to station rockets and military personnel in Antarctica.
Secondly, to enable the treaty to come about, the ­United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, France, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina suspended their earlier territo­rial claims to Antarctica. The signing of the treaty therefore ended the smouldering territorial conflict in Antarctica and paved the way for peaceful cooperation among nations with very different interests. In addition, the Antarctic Treaty runs indefinitely. While some of the subsequent agreements can be renegotiated after a certain time, the Antarctic Treaty never expires. The signatory states undertake to protect Antarctica and ensure its peaceful use for ever.

Extra Info Rights from the age of whaling and exploration

The idea of joint management of Antarctica as a research continent isolated from the rest of world politics worked for decades. Since the treaty was signed, the region has been peaceful. Fifty-four nations have now joined the Antarctic Treaty System and have committed themselves to peaceful use of the southern polar region. The states that actively conduct research in the Antarctic are known as Consultative Nations; they each pursue their own national research programmes but they also cooperate on many levels. They share their findings, plan joint expeditions, collaborate on the very complex logistics involved in operating research stations on the southern continent and provide assistance in emergencies – regardless of any conflicts that may be keeping the states at loggerheads with each other elsewhere in the world.
However, the success of international cooperation in Antarctic research obscures the fact that the territorial conflicts of the past are still smouldering today. None of the seven nations with territorial claims have abandoned these claims since the treaty was signed. On the contrary: Norway and Australia, for example, have submitted applications to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, requesting the relevant Antarctic territories to be assigned to them. It has been agreed that these applications will not be considered by the UN Commission until the Antarctic Treaty is one day terminated, but the mere fact that the applications have been made illustrates the seriousness with which the parties involved continue to pursue their national interests in the region south of 60° South.
The territorial claims also hinder international cooperation in the Antarctic, for example in connection with the negotiations on designating marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean. States with territorial claims have been involved in all the designated protected areas and proposals for protected areas to date; observers see this as an attempt to consolidate these claims. An exception is the proposal for a protected zone in the Weddell Sea put forward by Germany and the European Union. However, this proposal was opposed by Norway, which wants to pursue additional research in some of the potential protected ­areas east of the prime meridian (in the part of the Ant­arctic claimed by Norway) and draw up separate protection measures on the basis of this. Meanwhile Australian politicians are regarding with suspicion the fact that China has now established three of its four Antarctic research stations in the part of the eastern Antarctic that Australia is laying claim to.

Who invests has a say

The parties to the Antarctic Treaty System meet once a year to share information and discuss issues of common interest. These Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs) are attended by:
  • representatives of the Consultative Nations, of which there are currently 29. These are countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty and are actively pursuing substantial research in the Antarctic;
  • representatives of the 25 non-consultative nations. These countries have joined the Antarctic Treaty System but generally do not pursue their own active research in the southern polar region;
  • observer organizations such as the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR);
  • invited experts from the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC; a global alliance of environmental protection organizations) and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).
5.7 > At the start of each year the position of the geographic South Pole is recalculated and marked with a post and the flags of the twelve original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. This has to be repeated annually because the ice moves by about ten metres a year.
fig. 5.7 © David Rootes/Arcticphoto/laif
Decisions at ATCM meetings must be unanimous. Only the 29 Consultative Nations are entitled to vote: all the other parties present may participate in the preceding discussions but cannot vote. Because of this, critics accuse the Antarctic Treaty System of a lack of openness, fairness and transparency and call for reform. However, the Consultative Nations are assertive. In their view, countries should not be entitled to influence affairs in Antarctica unless they actively conduct research and contribute financially to the logistics and infrastructure that this requires. This is why international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations are not represented at the meetings of the Antarctic Treaty states. Among the reasons put ­forward for their exclusion is the argument that these ­alliances would represent the interests of countries that have not yet joined the Antarctic Treaty System.

International agreements on the protection of the Antarctic

The second pillar of the Antarctic Treaty System is formed by several international agreements on environmental protection in Antarctica, the provisions of which are ­legally binding on all member states. However, each member state implements these agreements through its own national legislation. The agreements include:

Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora

This first common set of measures to protect the Antarctic environment was agreed in Brussels in 1964 with the aim of strengthening international research and cooperation in connection with the conservation of Antarctic flora and fauna. It also established a system of special protected areas within the Antarctic. However, at the ATCM meeting in 2011 the Consultative Nations agreed that the measures would be replaced by the Environmental Protocol.

The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS)

The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals was signed in 1972 in order to regulate the commercial slaughter of seals that was still taking place in Antarctica. The Convention entered into force in 1978 but it makes few demands on the signatories because seal hunting in the Antarctic has now ceased. All activities recorded under the CCAS are collated by the United Kingdom – the depository state of the CCAS – and reported at the annual ATCM meetings.

The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CAMLR ­Convention)

The CAMLR Convention was adopted in 1980, after the then Soviet Union had severely overfished the marbled rockcod (Notothenia rossii) in just two fishing seasons and commercial interest in Antarctic krill had boomed. The Convention entered into force two years later and was the first marine convention to adopt an ecosystem approach to the conservation and management of marine living ­resources. This means that possible fishing plans and ­quotas are always evaluated in terms of the impact of this removal of fish and other marine resources on the related ecosystems.
The Convention covers all the marine organisms, including seabirds, living in the convention area; its aim is to conserve the marine ecosystems of the Antarctic. Fishing is not banned, but it must be sustainable. Implementation of the convention is coordinated and monitored by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic ­Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which is based in Hobart, Australia. Acting on the recommendations of a ­scientific committee, the Commission sets fishing quotas, places species under protection if necessary and is responsible for designating marine protected areas in the ­Southern Ocean. The Commission currently has 25 members, including the European Union. Commission deci­sions must be unanimous. The area to which the Convention applies is delimited by the Antarctic Convergence, which means that in some areas it extends to 50° South. The convention area represents around ten per cent of the Earth‘s oceans.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty

The Environmental Protocol was concluded on 4 October 1991 in Madrid, Spain, and so is also known as the Madrid Protocol. According to the German Environment Agency, it is the strictest and most comprehensive set of rules for a region of the Earth ever enshrined in an international agreement. Since it entered into force in 1998 the Protocol has prohibited the mining of mineral resources in the Antarctic. The signatories are obligated to preserve the Antarctic as a nature reserve devoted only to peace and science (Article 2 of the Protocol).
Within the territory of the Antarctic Treaty, the Protocol regulates all activities that could have adverse impacts on the environment and dependent and associated eco­systems. It also sets out for all parties to the Protocol the procedures and rules governing the awarding of consent for an activity in the Antarctic. The regulations in the five annexes to the Protocol deal with the conducting of environmental impact assessments, the protection of Antarctic flora and fauna, the disposal and treatment of waste, the prevention of marine pollution (for example from the discharge of oil, harmful substances or sewage, or the disposal of waste), and the special protection and management of selected areas.
The Environmental Protocol can be renegotiated after 50 years – that is, in or after 2048. However, it does not expire automatically after 50 years but remains in force unless the contracting states agree to modify it. The prospect of the Environmental Protocol being renegotiated in 2048 is a matter of concern to environmental organizations. They fear that new negotiations might lift the moratorium on the mining of mineral resources in Antarctic waters. The exploration of Antarctic mineral deposits was already considered in the 1980s. In June 1988, after negotiations that continued for six years, 19 countries con­cluded a set of rules on the mining of mineral resources. However, the agreement – which was entitled the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) – was rejected by some states. The Convention did not enter into force as planned in December 1988. This was largely because of opposition from France and New Zealand: both countries were of the view that the environmental provisions in the text as it then stood did not go far enough.
Negotiations on a comprehensive environmental protection agreement for Antarctica then commenced. The Environmental Protocol that is currently in force was drawn up in just four years. The discussions, occurring as they did shortly after the end of the Cold War, took place in an era of détente during which many participants displayed a new willingness to compromise on environmental issues.
At this time the countries represented in the United Nations negotiated and concluded not only the sustain­able development action plan Agenda 21 but also the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa (UNCCD)
. In negotiating the Environmental Protocol, the members of the Antarctic Treaty System agreed that their activities in Antarctica would be geared towards protecting the environment and that they would for the time being completely abandon the idea of exploiting resources there. This was a remarkable change, as present-day observers still note.
5.8 > The Antarctic Treaty officially entered into force on 23 June 1961. Shortly afterwards, from 10 to 24 July 1961, representatives of the twelve original signatory states met in Canberra, Australia, for the first official meeting of the members of the Antarctic Treaty. These meetings are still held annually, although there are now significantly more members.
fig. 5.8 © National Publicity Studios, Wellington

Extra Info China’s growing interest in the polar regions

New players, new views

The era of détente is now past. Since the Environmental Protocol entered into force in 1998 there have been major changes not only in the extent of human activities in the Antarctic but also in the geopolitical world order. The superpowers are once again competing for power and influence. The economies of former developing and newly-industrializing countries such as China, India and South Korea are now sufficiently strong for these states to express their growing political and economic interests by boosting their research presence in the Antarctic. ­These countries are also increasing their involvement in important scientific and technical bodies such as the ­Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP). COMNAP is the international association which brings together all the national associations and institutes that pursue research in the Antarctic. It coordinates transport logistics and research projects and participates in the ­meetings of the Consultative Nations as an advisor.
Some of the original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty see this development as posing a geopolitical risk and ­suspect the emerging countries of acting primarily on the basis of strategic and commercial interests. However, all the western states, too, have in the past expressed interest in the Antarctic’s resources and minerals. Political scientists therefore warn against stigmatizing the new arrivals on the scene, which could in the long term jeopardize peaceful cooperation in the Antarctic.
Instead, critics propose that the requirement for ­unanimity at important meetings such as those of the ATCM and CCAMLR be abolished and replaced by the principle of a democratic majority. This would have the advantage of enabling voting to take place on contro­versial issues (such as the designation of marine protected areas under CCAMLR) that have in the past been blocked by the veto of a small number of member states. However, an argument against this proposal is the fact that the decisions would have to be implemented in ­national law by member states. Countries that had voted against a measure would not be bound by the decision taken and would presumably have no interest in ­enshrining the corresponding requirements in their ­national legislation. ­There would thus be a risk that key players would not abide by the decisions. Textende