(5) Antartic

Astronomers have found their paradise, and it’s the coldest and most remote point in Antarctica

Antarctica - Wikipedia


Negotiating phase

Following on from earlier international polar years in 1882–3 and scientific understanding An international committee, the Special Committee for the IGY, was created, and some 67 countries committed themselves to the global scientific investigation. In the period between July 1957 and December 1958, particular attention was to be given to the polar regions and outer space. With Cold War tensions evident in the Arctic region, the Antarctic enjoyed prominence, in contrast to earlier international polar years. The preparatory meetings leading up to the IGY established the ‘ground rules’. In 1955, it was agreed that Antarctic research had to be carried out on the basis that sovereignty considerations were separated from scientific investigation. Twelve nations, including the seven claimants, participated, and some 5,000 personnel at 55 research stations carried out a range of investigations, including the mapping of the Antarctic, ice-cap thickness studies, marine biology, and upper atmospheric research.

Claimant states had to accept that the Americans and Soviets were going to establish their bases across the region, including an American one at the South Pole and a Soviet research station at the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. Both superpowers were making a powerful political and symbolic point – claimants had no special rights in the context of the international scientific investigation. The scientific station offered a new model of colonization – whereas claimant states created research stations as part of their national strategies, other non-claimants such as Japan were able to point to IGY scientific priorities and suggest, more plausibly perhaps, that they were acting in the interests of ‘mankind’. Rhetorically speaking, ‘scientific authority’ was replacing ‘environmental authority’, and claimant states needed to accept not only trespassing but also encampment. While the IGY generated extraordinary amounts of new data on the Antarctic, including on the upper atmosphere, it created compelling precedents. Science could be a powerful mechanism for international cooperation, while scientists relished having unfettered access to the continent and surrounding ocean. Scientific bases, while information-processing colonies, also provided a visible manifestation of the claimant and non-claimant interest in the Antarctic. New stations sprang up all over the continent and surrounding islands. Britain, for example, established a new base at Halley Bay, and the three counter-claimants managed to collaborate with one another in the Antarctic Peninsula region. Australia had to accept that Soviet bases in the Australian Antarctic Territory could not be wished away. Finally, the IGY offered a possible scientific-diplomatic model for the future governance of the Antarctic. Could the parties be persuaded to continue to cooperate with one another even if the sovereignty of the Antarctic remained unsettled? What would happen after the IGY – would there be a new ‘scramble for the Antarctic’?

These questions were pressed in newspapers and magazines around the world. In the midst of the IGY and beyond, the United States hosted a series of meetings with the and scientific understanding So if the path towards the Antarctic Treaty was decisively shaped by the experiences of the IGY, it was not a straightforward one. Britain and its Commonwealth allies were still eager for the Soviet Union to be excluded from any future political arrangement. Argentina and Chile were deeply troubled by the precedent set by the IGY in allowing unfettered access to their territories. Norway was more preoccupied with the Arctic and uncertain about its long-term commitment, but reluctant to lose face. New Zealand, mindful of the substantial US presence in its Ross Dependency, even contemplated renouncing its territorial claim. Any agreement was likely to involve signing up to some kind of framework guaranteeing unrestricted access and recognition that others might, at some later date, press a claim to the Antarctic. This was a bitter pill to swallow for the gang of seven. While science was perfectly capable of being put to work in ways that exceeded the selfless pursuit of knowledge creation and exchange, polar science was also colonizing the Antarctic, and generating new expectations, conventions, procedures, and rules. The IGY brought into sharper focus a different kind of geophysical and geopolitical architecture – one based on recognizing that the Antarctic was an integral part of planet Earth and its geophysical systems. As such, it offered a different vision, one that was potentially far removed from the contest between nations for defined sovereign rights.

Post-colonial Antarctica

The signing of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959, negotiated between the United States and eleven other parties including Britain and the Soviet Union, was far from a smooth process. Having gathered in October 1959, on the back of an invitation from the US State Department to those countries involved in the Antarctic dimension of the IGY, the omens were not good. Even after some 60 preliminary meetings, the twelve parties disagreed with one another over some fundamental issues. The most significant was the question of ownership. The seven claimant states, with the partial exception of resource-strapped New Zealand, were determined to retain their claimant gang membership. Every head of the delegation to the claimant states devoted their opening addresses to articulating their ‘inalienable’ rights to, at least a portion of, the continent. For the five other parties, including Belgium, Japan, and South Africa, these words were emblematic of wishful thinking. For the last decade, the United States and the Soviet Union had refused to recognize any sovereign rights to the Antarctic, and what is more, reiterated their right to press their own claims in the future. The IGY did nothing to alter this worldview; rather, it reinforced it. For all the IGY and its fine rhetoric, sovereignty and ownership of the Antarctic was a stumbling block. There were also additional problems to be confronted – since members of the arm sea ice extended Peninsula forces supported the IGY scientists, did the Antarctic need to be demilitarized? The US Navy was the biggest operator under its annual Operation Deep Freeze programme, and if other militaries implemented further exercises, they might resuscitate former tensions. Should nuclear testing be banned given that the continent was free from the indigenous human population? One could argue that it was better to test there than on supposedly thinly populated areas in the Pacific Ocean and Siberia. Was it reasonable for other signatories to demand the right of inspection of other scientific stations and installations in order to ensure that the content and spirit of any nascent treaty was respected? Could there be an ‘open-skies’ policy in the Antarctic whereby parties could observe one another from the air? How would one enforce any measures if sovereignty were disputed? Did the parties concerned need to discuss resource-related issues such as mining and/or fishing? Would scientists and science be sufficiently emollient to overcome schisms of the future? And, whatever the answers to these questions and more, this conference was planned for 1959 – the year, as it turned out, of the Cuban revolution.

With the help of the neatly typed diaries of Brian Roberts, a senior member of the British delegation to the Antarctic Treaty conference, we gain some insights into the febrile atmosphere (and his personality type). As he confided: It is not possible to continue this record in the way I hoped. … What spare time I can find is spent drafting telegrams for the Foreign Office or preparing memoranda for Sir Esler [Head of the British Delegation]. These are usually finished by about half-past one or 2 o’clock in the morning and by that time I want only to go to bed exhausted. … I wake up from a nightmare of papers suddenly realizing that I am not in the stuffy conference room.

Surrounded by potted palm trees, the delegation including Roberts knew that some kind of political legal-scientific settlement was vital. The Cubans had their revolution; now the Antarctic needed one. As a claimant state, austerity-weakened Britain had invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in creating and sustaining a scientific and logistical programme designed to keep at bay two South American rival claimants – Argentina and Chile. But the South American states were never going to drop their ‘claims’ to the Antarctic Peninsula region. Unlike Britain, the South American states were not managing a diminishing imperial portfolio, some of which was problematic, and were not embroiled in defence commitments around the world from Korea to West Germany. The British Treasury was demanding savings, and Roberts and the team needed a formula with the imprimatur of the United States that would be both cost-saving and face-saving. Failure to find some kind of international agreement would lead to Antarctic withdrawal. In 1958, the Treasury made it clear to the Foreign Office and Colonial Offices that further investment was not going to be sanctioned to defend a remote and uninhabited part of the British Empire with questionable resource value.

All the participants brought their own agendas regarding a possible settlement. For the Soviets, for example, simply participating was significant given earlier attempts by the seven claimant states and the United States to try and exclude them from shaping the future governance of the Antarctic. The Soviet delegation was determined to ensure that their non-recognition policy of existing claims was respected and was eager that the region is demilitarized, especially given American plans (however tentative) to consider the possibility of nuclear testing. The southern hemispheric states such as Argentina and Australia were deeply concerned about nuclear testing and covert submarine activities in the Southern Ocean. Smaller countries such as Belgium and Norway were eager to be represented even if, in the case of Norway, the Euro-Arctic region was a more pressing priority. Finally, for apartheid South Africa, this was a major international meeting in which the white minority government could take its place without fear of isolation.

The conference closed in late November with the Antarctic Treaty open for signature on 1 December 1959. The treaty applies to all areas south of 60° south latitude. The preamble of the treaty establishes its genealogical record and future-orientated goals: Recognizing that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord; Acknowledging the substantial contributions to scientific knowledge resulting from international cooperation in scientific investigation in Antarctica; Convinced that the establishment of a firm foundation for the continuation and development of such cooperation on the basis of freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica as applied during the International Geophysical Year accords with the interests of science and the progress of all mankind; Convinced also that a treaty ensuring the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only and the continuance of international harmony in Antarctica will further the purposes and principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.

The reference to the Charter of the United Nations is noteworthy as twelve nations invoked the assumed authority of the ‘international community’, including countries such as India that raised the ‘question of Antarctica’ in 1956 and 1958 at the UN. The Indian interventions played their part in reminding the negotiating parties that interest in the Antarctic was growing, especially in parts of the world without a lengthy record of exploratory and scientific engagement.

India and the ‘question of Antarctica’

We are not challenging anybody’s rights there [in Antarctica]. But it has become important that the matter be considered by the United Nations. The fact that Antarctica contains many very important minerals – especially atomic energy minerals – is one reason why this area is attractive to various countries. We thought it would be desirable to have a discussion about this in the United Nations.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 1958

The articles within the treaty outline the following commitments: the Antarctic should be used for exclusively peaceful purposes with no scope for military activities; there should be an unfettered freedom to conduct scientific research throughout the Antarctic; international scientific cooperation requires parties share their information with one another; the treaty parties agree to put to one side their disagreements over sovereignty and that by cooperating with one another it is recognized that no new and or enlarged claims can be made to the region; nuclear weapons testing, storage, and dumping is banned; an inspection system should be created to ensure compliance; and measures are put in place to ensure that the parties can resolve disputes, and meet again to consider supplementary additions to the treaty and associated and scientific understanding The linchpin of the treaty was Article 4. Without it, everything else would have collapsed in a proverbial heap. Article 4 stipulated the following:

1. Nothing contained in the present Treaty shall be interpreted as:

1. A renunciation by any Contracting Party of previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica;

2. A renunciation or diminution by any Contracting Party of any basis of claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica which it may have whether as a result of its activities or those of its nationals in Antarctica or otherwise;

3. Prejudicing the position of any Contracting Party as regards its recognition or no recognition of any other State’s rights of or claim or basis of claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica.

2. No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim or enlargement of an existing claim, to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica, shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.

In essence, the seven claimant states were not asked to either renounce or diminish their sovereign claims for the duration of the treaty. In return, however, they had to accept several things. No claimants such as the United States and the Soviet Union retained their right to press a claim to the Antarctic in the future. Non-claimants and claimants alike could carry out scientific research across the polar continent, and claimants such as Australia would simply have to accept the presence of Soviet bases in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Finally, everyone was expected to embrace, under the terms of Article 7, the obligations regarding inspection and advanced notification of plans to dispatch expeditions, including military personnel, to the region. So, sovereignty-related questions were treated in a deliberately ambiguous manner. This suited the superpowers. Article 4 was a subtle act of hegemonic power. There was no need, after all, for either the US or the Soviet Union to initiate an actual claim to Antarctica.

The treaty was available for signing some six weeks after the opening presentations by heads of delegations. We should acknowledge the role of restraint and absence in securing such a speedy agreement. There were very real tensions between the parties. Sovereignty was a major obstacle, and for countries such as Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Chile, the idea that the country should ‘sign away’ its papal inheritance was unthinkable. There was a very real danger that the Argentine delegation would simply walk away or, further down the ratification track, discover that the Argentine parliament would refuse to accede to the treaty. Argentine parliamentarians understood that the treaty was cementing the authority of the US in particular to circumvent the sovereignty politics of Antarctica. So Article 4, however clever and open-ended, was not a magic bullet in itself. It had to be negotiated and accepted within the domestic territories of the twelve states. The entry into force of the treaty was not certain on 1 December 1959 because every signatory had to confirm that accession was completed domestically. And Argentina was crucial given its claimant-state status and involvement in the most contested part of the Antarctic. All the parties, whether by design and/or major initiative managed to display some form of restraint from aggressive territorial nationalism, not to mention the disciplinary constraints of Cold War antagonism.

The other factor at play here was absence. Resources were not discussed, formally at least, at the Washington Conference. In large part, this was due to the fact that the sovereignty question inevitably raised issues pertaining to the ownership of onshore and offshore resources. Unlike India, no one mobilized a view of the Antarctic as an under-exploited resource frontier. The specter of resources was never far from those discussions, however. Public awareness of the Antarctic was far higher now, and stories alerting readers of untold riches awaiting discovery and exploitation were legion. The Antarctic’s living resource potential was immense, and whaling now fell under the remit of the International Whaling Commission (established in 1946). In non-living resource terms, evidence abounded of mineral potential, even if a combination of distance, remoteness, and inaccessibility made it an unlikely short-term development. The point was as much about future possibilities and possible futures. The delegates at Washington recognized that resource use and management would have to be tackled at a later date.

The Antarctic Treaty stabilized the deeply divisive problem of territorial sovereignty. Article 4 ‘froze’ sovereignty positions and facilitated the emergence of science to be the determining factor in shaping access to terrain and scientific data. The treaty protected the colonial status quo ante. Unlike in other parts of the world, it was still possible to be a good colonizer, albeit one signed up to the Antarctic Treaty. After its entry into force, all the claimant states continued to believe that their territorial claims were intact and fundamentally unchanged. Stamps continued to be issued, textbooks authored and maps topographic form.

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