THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 1, 1959

The Antarctic Treaty Signed — Reserving Antarctica for Scientific Research

antarctic-treaty-scientific-researchThe Antarctic Treaty, which entered into force in 1961, established an international administrative system for the continent. The impetus for the treaty was the international geophysical year, during 1957 and 1958, which had brought scientists from many nations together to study Antarctica. The political situation in Antarctica was complex at the time, with the following seven nations having made sometimes overlapping territorial claims to the continent: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Several other nations, most notably the former Soviet Union and the United States, had been active in Antarctic exploration and research and were concerned with how the continent would be administered.

Negotiations on the treaty began in June 1958 with Belgium, Japan and South Africa joining the original nine countries. The treaty was opened for signature in December 1959 and took effect in June 1961. It begins by “recognizing that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.” The key to the treaty was the nations’ agreement to disagree on territorial claims. Signatories of the treaty are not required to renounce existing claims; nations without claims have an equal voice as those with claims, and no new claims or claim enlargements can take place while the treaty is in force. This agreement defused the most controversial and complex issue regarding Antarctica in an unorthodox way. Among the other major provisions of the treaty are that the continent will be demilitarized; nuclear explosions and the storage of nuclear wastes are prohibited; the right of unilateral inspection of all facilities on the continent to ensure that the provisions of the treaty are being honored is guaranteed; and scientific research can continue throughout the continent.

The treaty runs indefinitely and can be amended only by the unanimous consent of the signatory nations. Provisions were also included for other nations to become parties to the treaty. These additional nations can either be acceding parties, which do not conduct significant research activities but agree to abide by the terms of the treaty, or consultative parties, which have acceded to the treaty and undertake substantial scientific research on the continent. Sixteen nations have joined the original twelve in becoming consultative parties, including Brazil, China, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Peru, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay.

“Antarctic Treaty (1961).” Environmental Encyclopedia. Gale, 2011. Science in Context. Web.


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