A success story for international cooperation

Today Antarctica is protected and managed under various treaties and agreements. These are known collectively as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The ATS comprises the Antarctic Treaty, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and all decisions adopted by the Contracting Parties at their annual Consultative Meetings. The core element of the Antarctic Treaty is peaceful cooperation between the Parties. Further international agreements counted as part of the ATS are: the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CAMLR Convention).

From competition to international cooperation

At the beginning of the 19th century, when it became clear that the terra incognita on the southern side of the world was a separate continent, the first scientific voyages of discovery there began. Initially, numerous adventurers competed to explore Antarctica. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the first moves towards international cooperation were made: the first International Polar Year in 1882‑83, for example, or the Seventh International Geographical Congress in Berlin in 1899, at which plans for the German, British and Norwegian expeditions to the South Pole were presented and discussed. International interest in the icy continent grew markedly in the early and mid-20th century. By the end of the Second World War, seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom) had made claims to territory in Antarctica, though these had not been internationally recognised. After 1945, in order to avoid new conflicts, the international community tried to find an acceptable solution for the territory of Antarctica. One milestone was the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58, with which the third International Polar Year was launched. It strengthened international cooperation. As a consequence, in October 1959, following difficult, lengthy diplomatic negotiations, the United States invited the twelve states that had been engaged in Antarctic research until then to a conference in Washington. There, on 1 December 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed.

The aim of the Antarctic Treaty and its fourteen Articles was and remains to this day to create the foundation for peaceful international cooperation in the region. Once the Treaty had been ratified, representatives of the Parties met on 10 July 1961 for the first Consultative Meeting to discuss further procedures.

Avoid overexploitation

The Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), which provides the Contracting Parties with advice on environmental protection in Antarctica, meets concurrently with the annual ATCM. The CEP was established by Article 11 of the Environment Protocol and its tasks are described in greater detail in Article 12, which says: “The functions of the Committee shall be to provide advice and formulate recommendations to the Parties in connection with the implementation of this Protocol, including the operation of its Annexes, for consideration at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, and to perform such other functions as may be referred to it by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings.” It provides advice, among other things, on measures taken pursuant to the Environment Protocol, in particular whether they are effective or need to be updated or improved, as well as on environmental impact assessments, response action in environmental emergencies, protected areas, inspection procedures and the state of the Antarctic environment.

Following the energy crisis of the 1970s, however, the industrialised countries were no longer looking merely at living resources. They were now interested above all in fossil resources like natural gas and mineral oil. In order to ensure regulation of the relevant industrial activity, negotiations on the use of mineral resources in the Antarctic region were held in the 1980s. The result was the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA), signed in 1988. In the face of massive pressure from international environmental organisations, however, the Convention was never actually ratified by any of its signatories, so never entered into force. Instead, negotiations began on comprehensive environmental protection in Antarctica. These eventually led to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.