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Pole Position

Manfred Reinke
Executive Secretary, Antarctic Treaty

Changes occur faster in the polar regions than elsewhere, making them the most sensitive indicators of global change. They are also the last extended pristine areas on the planet with extremely sensitive and unique ecosystems. And they are the drivers of the global climate; since climate systems are strongly coupled, changes in these regions have a strong impact on living conditions worldwide.

Environmental protection has been on the agenda of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting since the early sixties — soon after the birth of the treaty, one of the last century’s most successful international instruments focused on peace and international collaboration. Signed in Washington in December 1959 by the twelve countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, it has since been acceded to by 36 other nations.

Though it does not itself contain environmental elements, the first conservation scheme applicable to Antarctica — the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora — was adopted by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in 1964. The Consultative Parties subsequently developed the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS), which entered into force in 1978.

Negotiations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea raised concerns about the potential large scale exploitation of krill, which could have severe consequences for other Antarctic life which depends on it for food. The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which entered into force in 1982, provides for the conservation and rational use of krill, fin fish and other marine resources. Unlike other regional fisheries management organizations, it is based on an ecosystem approach to conservation, and requires that effects on ecosystems be taken into account in managing the harvesting of marine resources.

In a similarly precautionary approach, the Consultative Parties agreed to start negotiations on a comprehensive regime on mineral resources of Antarctica in 1981 to minimize the environmental and political problems of unregulated exploitation. The Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities was concluded in Wellington in 1988, but never went into force since France and Australia declared the following year that they would not ratify the contract.

“The world had changed,” recalled Michel Rocard, the former Prime Minister of France. “Trends in ecological policies have been appearing everywhere, the requirements have widened. Two Prime Ministers, linked by friendship, Robert Hawke of Australia and myself, announce that they refuse to send the Convention to their Parliaments for ratification and request the opening of much more ambitious negotiations. Italy and Belgium followed immediately, Norway slightly later.”

This opened the door for negotiations on a Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed only two years later in Madrid in October, 1991 and entered into force in 1998. It states that “... the development of a comprehensive regime for the protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems is in the interest of mankind as a whole”. It designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”, sets out basic principles applicable to human activities in Antarctica, and prohibits all activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources, except for scientific research. Up to 2048 it can only be modified with the unanimous agreement of all Consultative Parties to the Treaty, while the prohibition on mineral resource activities cannot be removed unless a binding legal regime covering them is in force

The Protocol established the Committee for Environmental Protection as an expert advisory body to provide up-to-date advice and formulate recommendations on implementing it and constitutes the strategic guideline for future environmental policies in the Antarctic Treaty Area.

In 2009 the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research published its comprehensive study “Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment”, a highly cross-disciplinary effort, with the goal of “reflecting the importance of the continent in global issues, such as sea-level rise, the separation of natural climate variability from anthropogenic influences, food stocks, biodiversity and carbon uptake by the ocean”.

This year — the 50th Anniversary of the Treaty’s entry into force and the 20th of the signing of the Protocol on Environmental Protection — the Consultative Parties reaffirmed their continued commitment to upholding it and “their intention to continue “strong and effective cooperation” by inter alia, “continuing to identify and address emerging environmental challenges and strengthening the protection of the Antarctic environment and its dependent and associated ecosystems, particularly in relation to global climate change and human activities in the region, including tourism.” They also appealed to States that are party to the Treaty, but not yet to the Protocol, to ratify it, thus “reaffirming their will to protect the Antarctic environment, in the interest of mankind as a whole and to preserve the value of Antarctica as an area for the conduct of scientific research”.

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