“Cold” War: Conflict Looming On The World’s Most Peaceful Continent?

Despite being the coldest and least understood continent on our planet, Antarctica is divided into territorial claims by states attempting to scratch their presences into its ice. Currently Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Norway claim themselves sovereigns of territory in the South Pole, granting their governments exclusive authority over their delimited territories and disavowing the legitimacy of any higher political authority within those borders. Only 11.41% of the continent has been left unclaimed under the name of the Marie Byrd Land.

However, the claimant states’ reluctance to accept any form of international jurisdiction in their delimited territories has given rise to issues where claims overlap. For instance, Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom have disputed territorial titles over the South Orkney Islands, Deception Island, Melchior Islands, Palmer Archipelago, and Winter Island for years. When the United Kingdom brought a case against Chile and Argentina before the International Court of Justice in 1955 in an attempt to secure international recognition of British sovereignty claims, both defending states refused to be judged, rendering the Court unable to adjudicate the dispute. In the absence of international mediation, these competing claims have trapped the nations claiming territories in Antarctica in a vicious spiral of tensions. Although the spirit of international scientific co-operation has heretofore kept military conflicts from boiling over at the South Pole, weaknesses in the Antarctic Treaty intended to ensure this state of affairs have inadvertently allowed states to militarize the Antarctic.

The Antarctic Treaty was established to respond to the escalating threats of territorial claims and potential military conflicts in Antarctica by harnessing the power of science.

More than 70 nations, including the Soviet Union, participated in the International Geophysical Year (I.G.Y.) between 1957-1958 as part of a push to better the world’s understanding of the Earth’s environment through the study of eleven geophysical fields. At the initiative of the United States, state parties to the I.G.Y. were invited to participate in the preparatory meetings of the Antarctic Conference, held in Washington, D.C. on October 15th, 1959. 12 nations, including every country which currently holds sovereign territory in the South Pole, signed the Antarctic Treaty at the Antarctic Conference on December 1st of that year.

Polar explorer Laurence McKinley Gould described the Antarctic Treaty as “a [unique] document … that may take its place alongside the Magna Carta.” This comparison is apt, as the Magna Carta is the first charter in which the King of England agreed to limit the power of the English Crown. Similarly, signatories to the Antarctic Treaty decided to set aside the contentious issue of territorial titles and sovereignty claims over Antarctica. This deliberate action aimed to foster an environment of co-operation, not only among the claimant states, but also with non-claimant states. By freezing the question of territorial claims, all states involved could shift their focus towards collaborative efforts in the scientific domain, for the “interest of mankind” (as the preamble to the Antarctic Treaty says). The Treaty also left room for the adoption of additional issue-related agreements. Together, these make up the Antarctic Treaty System (A.T.S.).

However, the Treaty has several weaknesses.

Paradoxically, Article I of the Antarctic Treaty could be argued to have enabled legal militarization of the continent. The article states that the Treaty “shall not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for other peaceful purpose,” but does not indicate which “measures of a military nature” are prohibited. State parties have therefore lawfully deployed military capabilities in the South Pole, ostensibly to support their respective national Antarctic Program activities. This raises concerns about the potential for covert military operations in Antarctica: as an example, Australia’s allocation of eight Boeing C-17A Globemaster III aircraft on Antarctic soil allows for military training and capacity-building operations in the region.

Thus, the militarization of Antarctica is no longer associated with the direct use of military resources for offensive operations on the continent, but rather with the establishment of military and civilian infrastructures to support covert non-peaceful purposes. The frontier between military and scientific is blurred, and states are likely to use scientific research as a pretense to mobilize and make use of military equipment on the continent.

The Antarctic Treaty System’s second legal loophole is Art. VII, which states that “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.” The absence of a clear and precise definition of “scientific research” is an inherent issue with this article. This lack of clarity creates a loophole that may incentivize states to engage in preparations for the commercial exploitation of Antarctic mineral resources under the guise of scientific justifications. Already, in 2009, a study of the Polar Research Institute of China itemized the location of Antarctic mineral resources and affirmed that “when all the world’s resources have been depleted, Antarctica will be a global treasure house of resources.” Other nations’ thinking is likely to fall along similar lines.

The area subject to the A.T.S. should also be called into question. According to the Antarctic Treaty, only the airspace up to 100 km above the Antarctic territory is subjected to the Treaty’s provisions. However, most recent air-power and space technologies can exceed this limit, leaving surveillance drones and other hard military equipment free to challenge the continent’s peaceful purpose. The Australian-held MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System, for example, can fly over 15,000 km. Considering the significant connection between Antarctica and outer space affairs, Antarctic research stations may even serve as launch sites for both kinetic and non-kinetic attacks on space assets. Thus, the Antarctic Treaty’s current territorial scope has also been deemed inadequate.

Finally, the legal framework laid out by the A.T.S. is inadequate to ensure that any attempt to militarize the Antarctic will be challenged, stopped, or even detected. The A.T.S. lacks a solid inspection regime to monitor state parties’ compliance with its provisions. Art. VII of the Antarctic Treaty, re-inforced later by Art. XIV of the Madrid Protocol, fosters observer inspections of parties’ activities, but these inspections work on a volunteer basis. Moreover, in the event that states are engaged in clandestine military operations, we can logically assume that they will not denounce similar activities carried out by other parties.

Despite over six decades of peace, war in Antarctica remains a plausible concern.

The separation between scientific and offensive military activities in Antarctica, as put forward by the Antarctic Treaty, is increasingly questionable in light of the revolution in military affairs and the participation of new actors, including developing states. Therefore, I think that a revision of the Antarctic Treaty to address the current Antarctic realities is necessary.

First, the meaning of “measures of military nature” at Art. I of the Antarctic Treaty should be specified. This provision is a remnant of the Cold War era and needs to reflect the current revolution in military means. The revised definition could include all kinetic and non-kinetic weapons, prohibiting the use of military ships and aircraft that could carry missiles, bombs, and other weapons. We could adopt a more stringent approach that requires states to constantly report the introduction of all military equipment and personnel, including private security contractors; otherwise, they could risk being excluded from the Antarctic Treaty. The inspection regime also should be revised in line with this redefinition, making it mandatory for all research stations to be inspected annually rather than relying on voluntary inspections of the observers.

Considering the increasing activities and interests in Antarctica, it is necessary for the A.T.S. to become more inclusive and representative of the global community. The governance of Antarctica requires collective action, and to achieve this, the A.T.S. should abandon the current membership class system and allow all states leading activities in Antarctica to participate and vote in sessions of the Antarctic Treaty Consultation Meeting (A.T.C.M.). This will ensure that the interests and concerns of all states are considered when making decisions related to the Antarctic region.

From an environmental perspective, the Treaty should serve as an incentive for states to meet their global commitments, such as the Paris Agreement, considering the impact of climate change on the continent. Therefore, a proposition might be that any state that fails to comply with its obligations under international environmental agreements should no longer be eligible to participate in the decision-making process of the A.T.S. Similarly, it would be beneficial to include observers and experts in each A.T.C.M. session – as opposed to occasionally – in order to increase awareness of the issue of climate change.

In summary, the preservation of the unique continent of Antarctica relies on a revision of the Antarctic Treaty System to effectively address the current threats to peace in the Antarctic.


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