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Antarctic Treaty - Frequently Asked Questions

How was the Antarctic Treaty formed?

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington on the 1 December 1959 by 12 nations that had been active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-58. The IGY was the first multi-nation research program of its kind in Antarctica where the nations involved, agreed that any political or legal differences would not interfere with the science. The success of the IGY lead to the agreement that peaceful cooperation on the continent should continue indefinitely; and ultimately lead to the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty.

Who are the Antarctic Treaty members?

The 12 original signatories were: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States and the USSR.
The Treaty provides that any member of the United Nations can join and now membership has reached 46 of which 28 are consultative parties with voting status. Consultative status is open to any country that can demonstrate its commitment to Antarctica by conducting significant research.

How does the Antarctic Treaty operate?

The Antarctic Treaty entered into force on the 23 June 1961 in the same year as the first Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). Since then, members have met regularly during ATCMs and now continue to meet annually in order to discuss:

  • Scientific cooperation
  • Measures to protect the environment
  • Operational issues
Activities in Antarctica are governed through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) rules, provided by the original Treaty along with three international agreements, negotiated during the ATCMs:

  • Convention for conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972)
  • Convention on the conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (1980)
  • Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991)
The Treaty has been recognised as one of the most successful international agreements and remains in force indefinitely. It provides that any party can call for a review conference after the expiration of 30 years. Since 1991, the 30th Anniversary of the Treaty, no party has called for a review recognising the Treaty’s continued strength and relevance.

What are the objectives of the Antarctic Treaty?

  • Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only; military operations are not permitted on the continent
  • The continued freedom for scientific investigation and research
  • To promote international cooperation and transparency in science, which allows for readily available data and research results
  • Prohibits nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste
  • Provides that any visits to the continent comply with the Treaty
  • Sets aside disputes over territorial sovereignty

How does the Antarctic Treaty protect the environment?

In the 1980s the consultative parties to the Treaty began developing the Regulations of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities. However, before it was ratified it was agreed to expand their efforts into a more comprehensive system to include the protection of the Antarctic Environment. This developed into the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, signed on 4 October 1991.

What does the Environmental Protocol state?

The Environmental Protocol commits the Parties to the “comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment” and designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. It sets out principles for environmental protection:
  • Bans all commercial mineral resource activity
  • Requires the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of all activities before they go ahead
  • Requires the conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora
  • Encourages the minimisation of waste production and sets out rules for waste management and responsible disposal
  • Prevents marine pollution by setting preventative measures on ship discharge and organising emergency response procedures
  • Designates environmentally protected areas