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Antarctic Treaty System

Antarctic Treaty System
The Antarctic Treaty
French: Traité sur l'Antarctique
Russian: Договор об Антарктике
Spanish: Tratado Antártico
Flag of the Antarctic Treaty.svg
SignedDecember 1, 1959
LocationWashington, D.C., United States
EffectiveJune 23, 1961
ConditionRatification of all 12 signatories
DepositaryFederal government of the United States
LanguagesEnglish, French, Russian, and Spanish
Full text
Antarctic Treaty at Wikisource
A satellite composite image of Antarctica

The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements, collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), regulate international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth's only continent without a native human population. It was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War, setting aside the continent as a scientific preserve, establishing freedom of scientific investigation, and banning military activity; for the purposes of the treaty system, Antarctica is defined as all the land and ice shelves south of 60°S latitude. Since September 2004, the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, which implements the treaty system, is headquartered in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The main treaty was opened for signature on December 1, 1959, and officially entered into force on June 23, 1961. The original signatories were the 12 countries active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–58: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These countries had established over 55 Antarctic research stations for the IGY, and the subsequent promulgation of the treaty was seen as a diplomatic expression of the operational and scientific cooperation that had been achieved. As of 2019, the treaty has 54 parties.


International conflicts

Various international conflicts motivated the creation of an agreement for the Antarctic. After the Second World War, the U.S. considered establishing a claim in Antarctica. From August 26, 1946, and until the beginning of 1947, Operation Highjump was carried out, the largest military expeditionary force that the United States has sent to Antarctica to the present, consisting of 13 ships, 4700 men and numerous aerial devices. Its goals were to train military personnel and test material in conditions of extreme cold for a hypothetical war in the Antarctic.

Some incidents had occurred during World War II, and a new one occurred in Hope Bay on February 1, 1952, when the Argentine military fired warning shots at a group of Britons. The response of the United Kingdom was to send a warship that landed marines at the scene on February 4. In 1949, Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom signed a Tripartite Naval Declaration committing not to send warships south of the 60th South parallel, which was renewed annually until 1961 when it was deemed unnecessary when the treaty entered into force. This tripartite declaration was signed after the tension generated when Argentina sent a fleet of 8 warships to Antarctica in February 1948.

On January 17, 1953, Argentina reopened the Lieutenant Lasala refuge on Deception Island, leaving a sergeant and a corporal in the Argentine Navy. On February 15, in the incident on Deception Island, 32 royal marines landed from the British frigate HMS Snipe armed with Sten machine guns, rifles, and tear gas capturing the two Argentine sailors. The Argentine refuge and a nearby uninhabited Chilean shelter were destroyed, and the Argentine sailors were delivered to a ship from that country on February 18 in the South Georgias Islands. A British detachment remained three months on the island while the frigate patrolled its waters until April.

On May 4, 1955, the United Kingdom filed two lawsuits, against Argentina and Chile respectively, before the International Court of Justice to declare the invalidity of the claims of the sovereignty of the two countries over Antarctic and sub-Antarctic areas. On July 15, 1955, the Chilean Government rejected the jurisdiction of the Court in that case, and on August 1, the Argentine Government also did so, so on March 16, 1956, the claims were filed.

Previous agreements

On September 2, 1947, the American quadrant of Antarctica (between 24 ° W and 90 ° W) was included as part of the security zone of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, committing its members to defend it in case of external aggression.

In August 1948, the United States proposed that Antarctica be under the guardianship of the United Nations as a trust administered by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Still, the idea was rejected by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, and Norway. Before the rejection, on August 28, 1948, the United States proposed to the claimants some form of internationalization of Antarctica, with the support of the United Kingdom. Chile responded by presenting a plan to suspend any Antarctic claim for 5 to 10 years while negotiating a final solution, which did not prosper. The interest of the United States to keep the Soviet Union away from Antarctica was frustrated when in 1950, this country informed the claimants that it would not accept any Antarctic agreement in which it was not represented. The fear that the USSR would react by making a territorial claim, bringing the Cold War to Antarctica, led the United States to make none. In 1956 and 1958, India tried unsuccessfully to bring the Antarctic issue to the United Nations General Assembly.

International Geophysical Year

In 1950 the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) discussed the possibility of holding a third International Polar Year. At the suggestion of the World Meteorological Organization, the idea of the International Polar Year was extended to the entire planet, thus creating the International Geophysical Year that took place between July 1, 1957, and December 31, 1958. In this event, 66 countries participated. At the ICSU meeting in Stockholm from September 9 to 11, 1957, the creation of a Special Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) was approved, inviting the twelve countries conducting Antarctic investigations to send delegates to integrate the committee, with the purpose of exchanging scientific information among its members regarding Antarctica. The SCAR was later renamed to the Scientific Committee for Research in Antarctica.

Both Argentina and Chile expressed that researching during the International Geophysical Year would not give any territorial rights to the participants and that the facilities that were erected during that year should then be dismantled at the end of it. After the United States proposed to extend the Antarctic investigations for another year, in February 1958, the Soviet Union reported that it would maintain its scientific bases until the studies that were carried out were completed.

Negotiation of the treaty

Scientific bases increased in international tension concerning Antarctica, and the danger of the Cold War spreading to that continent, caused the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to convene an Antarctic Conference to the twelve countries active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year, to sign a treaty. In the first phase, representatives of the twelve nations met in Washington, who met in 60 sessions from June 1958 to October 1959, to define the basic negotiating framework. Still, no consensus was reached on a preliminary draft. In the second phase, a conference of the highest diplomatic level was held from October 15 to December 1, 1959, the date of the signing of the treaty. The central ideas with full acceptance were the freedom of scientific research in Antarctica and the peaceful use of the continent. Still, their demilitarization and the maintenance of the status quo also had consensus.

The positions of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand coincided in the establishment of an international administration for Antarctica, proposing the latter to be within the framework of the United Nations. Australia and the United Kingdom expressed the need for inspections by observers, and the second proposed the use of military means for logistics functions. Argentina proposed that all atomic explosions be banned in Antarctica, which caused a crisis that lasted until the eve of the firm, since the United States, along with other countries, intended to ban only those that were made without prior notice and without prior consultation. The support of the USSR and Chile to the Argentine proposal finally caused the United States to retract its opposition.

The signing of the treaty was the first arms control agreement that occurred in the framework of the Cold War, and the complaining countries managed to avoid the internationalization of Antarctic sovereignty.

Other agreements

Disposal of waste by simply dumping it at the shoreline, as pictured at the Russian Bellingshausen Station on King George Island in 1992, is no longer permitted by the Protocol on Environmental Protection

Other agreements – some 200 recommendations adopted at treaty consultative meetings and ratified by governments – include:

Bilateral treaties

  • Exchange of Notes constituting an Agreement between the Governments of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Government of the French Republic, regarding Aerial Navigation in the Antarctic (Paris, October 25, 1938)
  • Treaty Between the Government of Australia and the Government of the French Republic on Cooperation in the Maritime Areas Adjacent to the French Southern and Antarctic Territories (TAAF), Heard Island and the McDonald Islands (Canberra, November 24, 2003)
  • Agreement on Cooperative Enforcement of Fisheries Laws between the Government of Australia and the Government of the French Republic in the Maritime Areas Adjacent to the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, Heard Island and the McDonald Islands (Paris, January 8, 2007)


The Antarctic Treaty System's yearly Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) are the international forum for the administration and management of the region. Only 29 of the 54 parties to the agreements have the right to participate in decision-making at these meetings, though the other 25 are still allowed to attend. The decision-making participants are the Consultative Parties and, in addition to the 12 original signatories, including 17 countries that have demonstrated their interest in Antarctica by carrying out substantial scientific activity there. The Antarctic Treaty also has Special Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (SATCM), which are generally summoned to treat more important topics but are less frequents and Meetings of Experts.


Map of research stations and territorial claims in Antarctica (2002)

As of 2019, there are 54 states party to the treaty, 29 of which, including all 12 original signatories to the treaty, have consultative (voting) status. The consultative members include the 7 countries that claim portions of Antarctica as their territory. The 47 non-claimant countries do not recognize the claims of others. 40 parties to the Antarctic Treaty have also ratified the "Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty".

 Parties with consulting status making a claim to Antarctic territory
 Parties with consulting status reserving the right to make a territorial claim
 Other parties with consulting status
 Parties without consulting status
 Non-party UN member states and observers
Country Signature Ratification/
 Argentina (claim)* Dec 1, 1959 Jun 23, 1961 Jun 23, 1961
 Australia (claim) Dec 1, 1959 Jun 23, 1961 Jun 23, 1961
 Austria No Aug 25, 1987 No
 Belarus No Dec 27, 2006 No
 Belgium Dec 1, 1959 Jul 26, 1960 Jun 23, 1961
 Brazil (unofficial claim) No May 16, 1975 Sep 27, 1983
 Bulgaria No Sep 11, 1978 Jun 5, 1998
 Canada No May 4, 1988 No
 Chile (claim)* Dec 1, 1959 Jun 23, 1961 Jun 23, 1961
 China No Jun 8, 1983 Oct 7, 1985
 Colombia No Jan 31, 1989 No
 Cuba No Aug 16, 1984 No
 Czech Republic No Jan 1, 1993 Apr 1, 2014 Succession from  Czechoslovakia, which acceded on June 14, 1962.
 Denmark No May 20, 1965 No
 Ecuador No Sep 15, 1987 Nov 19, 1990
 Estonia No May 17, 2001 No
 Finland No May 15, 1984 Oct 20, 1989
 France (claim) Dec 1, 1959 Sep 16, 1960 Jun 23, 1961
 Germany (historical claim) No Feb 5, 1979 Mar 3, 1981 Ratified as  West Germany.

 East Germany also acceded on November 19, 1974, and received consultative status on October 5, 1987, prior to its reunification with West Germany.

 Greece No Jan 8, 1987 No
 Guatemala No Jul 31, 1991 No
 Hungary No Jan 27, 1984 No
 Iceland No Oct 13, 2015 No
 India No Aug 19, 1983 Sep 12, 1983
 Italy No Mar 18, 1981 Oct 5, 1987
 Japan (historical claim) Dec 1, 1959 Aug 4, 1960 Jun 23, 1961
 Kazakhstan No Jan 27, 2015 No
 Malaysia No Oct 31, 2011 No
 Monaco No May 31, 2008 No
 Mongolia No Mar 23, 2015 No
 Netherlands No Mar 30, 1967 Nov 19, 1990
 New Zealand (claim) Dec 1, 1959 Nov 1, 1960 Jun 23, 1961
 North Korea No Jan 21, 1987 No
 Norway (claim) Dec 1, 1959 Aug 24, 1960 Jun 23, 1961
 Pakistan No Mar 1, 2012 No
 Papua New Guinea No Mar 16, 1981 No Succession from  Australia. Effective from their independence on September 16, 1975.
 Peru No Apr 10, 1981 Oct 9, 1989
 Poland No Jun 8, 1961 Jul 29, 1977
 Portugal No Jan 29, 2010 No
 Romania No Sep 15, 1971 No
 Russia Dec 1, 1959 Nov 2, 1960 Jun 23, 1961 Ratified as the  Soviet Union.
 Slovakia No Jan 1, 1993 No Succession from  Czechoslovakia, which acceded on June 14, 1962.
 Slovenia No Apr 22, 2019 No
 South Africa Dec 1, 1959 Jun 21, 1960 Jun 23, 1961
 South Korea No Nov 28, 1986 Oct 9, 1989
 Spain No Mar 31, 1982 Sep 21, 1988
 Sweden No Apr 24, 1984 Sep 21, 1988
  Switzerland No Nov 15, 1990 No
 Turkey No Jan 24, 1996 No
 Ukraine No Oct 28, 1992 Jun 4, 2004
 United Kingdom (claim)* Dec 1, 1959 May 31, 1960 Jun 23, 1961
 United States Dec 1, 1959 Aug 18, 1960 Jun 23, 1961
 Uruguay No Jan 11, 1980 Oct 7, 1985
 Venezuela No May 24, 1999 No

* Has an overlapping claim with another one or two claimants.
Reserved the right to make a claim.

Antarctic Treaty Secretariat

The Antarctic Treaty Secretariat was established in Buenos Aires, Argentina in September 2004 by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). Jan Huber (the Netherlands) served as the first Executive Secretary for five years until August 31, 2009. He was succeeded on September 1, 2009, by Manfred Reinke (Germany). Reinke was succeeded by Albert Lluberas (Uruguay), who was elected in June 2017 at the 40th Antarctic Consultative Treaty Meeting in Beijing, China.

The tasks of the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat can be divided into the following areas:

  • Supporting the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and the meeting of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP).
  • Facilitating the exchange of information between the Parties required in the Treaty and the Environment Protocol.
  • Collecting, storing, arranging and publishing the documents of the ATCM.
  • Providing and disseminating public information about the Antarctic Treaty system and Antarctic activities.

Legal system

Antarctica currently has no permanent population and therefore it has no citizenship nor government. Personnel present on Antarctica at any time are always citizens or nationals of some sovereignty outside Antarctica, as there is no Antarctic sovereignty. The majority of Antarctica is claimed by one or more countries, but most countries do not explicitly recognize those claims. The area on the mainland between 90 degrees west and 150 degrees west is the only major land on Earth not claimed by any country. Until 2015 the interior of the Norwegian Sector, the extent of which had never been officially defined, was considered to be unclaimed. That year, Norway formally laid claim to the area between its Queen Maud Land and the South Pole.

Governments that are party to the Antarctic Treaty and its Protocol on Environmental Protection implement the articles of these agreements, and decisions taken under them, through national laws. These laws generally apply only to their own citizens, wherever they are in Antarctica, and serve to enforce the consensus decisions of the consultative parties: about which activities are acceptable, which areas require permits to enter, what processes of environmental impact assessment must precede activities, and so on. The Antarctic Treaty is often considered to represent an example of the common heritage of mankind principle.


This 1959 cover commemorated the opening of the Wilkes post office in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Since the designation of the Australian Antarctic Territory pre-dated the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, Australian laws that relate to Antarctica date from more than two decades before the Antarctic Treaty era. In terms of criminal law, the laws that apply to the Jervis Bay Territory (which follows the laws of the Australian Capital Territory) apply to the Australian Antarctic Territory. Key Australian legislation applying Antarctic Treaty System decisions include the Antarctic Treaty Act 1960, the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980 and the Antarctic Marine Living Resources Conservation Act 1981.

United States

The law of the United States, including certain criminal offences by or against U.S. nationals, such as murder, may apply to areas not under jurisdiction of other countries. To this end, the United States now stations special deputy U.S. Marshals in Antarctica to provide a law enforcement presence.

Some U.S. laws directly apply to Antarctica. For example, the Antarctic Conservation Act, Public Law 95-541, 16 U.S.C. § 2401 et seq., provides civil and criminal penalties for the following activities, unless authorized by regulation or statute:

  • the taking of native Antarctic mammals or birds
  • the introduction into Antarctica of non-indigenous plants and animals
  • entry into specially protected or scientific areas
  • the discharge or disposal of pollutants into Antarctica or Antarctic waters
  • the importation into the U.S. of certain items from Antarctica

Violation of the Antarctic Conservation Act carries penalties of up to US$10,000 in fines and one year in prison. The Departments of the Treasury, Commerce, Transportation, and the Interior share enforcement responsibilities. The Act requires expeditions from the U.S. to Antarctica to notify, in advance, the Office of Oceans and Polar Affairs of the State Department, which reports such plans to other nations as required by the Antarctic Treaty. Further information is provided by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation.

New Zealand

In 2006, the New Zealand police reported that jurisdictional issues prevented them issuing warrants for potential American witnesses who were reluctant to testify during the Christchurch Coroner's investigation into the death by poisoning of Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks at the South Pole base in May 2000. Dr. Marks died while wintering over at the United States' Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station located at the geographic South Pole. Prior to autopsy, the death was attributed to natural causes by the National Science Foundation and the contractor administering the base. However, an autopsy in New Zealand revealed that Dr. Marks died from methanol poisoning. The New Zealand Police launched an investigation. In 2006, frustrated by lack of progress, the Christchurch Coroner said that it was unlikely that Dr. Marks ingested the methanol knowingly, although there is no certainty that he died as the direct result of the act of another person. During media interviews, the police detective in charge of the investigation criticized the National Science Foundation and contractor Raytheon for failing to co-operate with the investigation.

South Africa

Under the South African Citizens in Antarctica Act, 1962, South African law applies to all South African citizens in Antarctica, and they are subject to the jurisdiction of the magistrate's court in Cape Town. The Antarctic Treaties Act, 1996 incorporates the Antarctic Treaty and related agreements into South African law. In regard to violations of these treaties, South Africa also asserts jurisdiction over South African residents and members of expeditions organised in South Africa.

See also

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