Antarctic Treaty

International delegates gathered at a Treaty meeting
Treaty meeting (A Jackson)

The Antarctic Treaty was designed to provide an agreement for the future care and use of Antarctica, as well as the avoid territorial and other disputes. It encourages international cooperation in scientific research - it is an extraordinary agreement that was signed during the Cold War!

During the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, scientists from twelve nations (including Australia) joined forces and worked together in Antarctica. The momentum of that enormously successful event led to the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty in Washington in 1959. According to the text of the Treaty, it was intended to guarantee that '…Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord'. The Treaty covers everything south of 60 degrees South latitude (except for a provision relating to the high seas), now known as the Antarctic Treaty Area (ATA).

Among other things, the Treaty prohibits nuclear explosions, radioactive waste disposal, and military deployments in the ATA. The Treaty's other most significant goal is the encouragement of continued international cooperation in scientific research. It is an extraordinary agreement, all the more so for having been signed in the midst of the Cold War. It internationalised and demilitarised the Antarctic continent and provided for its cooperative exploration and future use. It has been cited as an example of nations exercising foresight and working in concert to prevent conflict before it develops, and has served as a model for later 'non-armament' treaties, such as the treaties that excluded nuclear weapons from outer space, from Latin America, and from the seabed.

  • Ask students to read the summary of the Antarctic Treaty [PDF]. What is the main goal of the Treaty? How does it achieve its goal? How does it deal with the issue of territorial claims? Do you think this is a good approach or not? What issues doesn't the Antarctic Treaty address?
  • Groups of students can research the requirements of the Antarctic Treaty, and report to the class on three of these, explaining why they are important and what the implications are for humans in the Antarctic and elsewhere in the world. This can be done by producing posters, written reports or oral/video presentations. Find background information about the Antarctic Treaty, a copy of the full text of the Treaty and an up-to-date list of Antarctic Treaty partners and the Antarctic Treaty Parties.
  • Design a school treaty that protects and cares for everyone and everything, including the environment. Some examples of issues you might want to consider include ensuring safety in the playground, picking up rubbish in the school grounds, creating murals or other beautification projects that involve all classes, caring for the gardens and the buildings, and preventing vandalism.

Antarctic Treaty parties

Currently, 49 nations have agreed to the Antarctic Treaty, but only 28 participate in the decision making process. These 28 include the original 12 signatories and other countries with substantial Antarctic research programs. Only the Consultative Parties participate in the decision-making at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM), and every decision requires a consensus. However, nations who conduct scientific research on the continent can request they be recognised as Consultative Parties.

  • Give the students a copy of the map showing Antarctic wintering stations [PDF].
    • How many are located inland?
    • Have them suggest reasons why most stations are located on the coastline.
    • How many are around the Antarctic Peninsula?
    • Why are so many of them around the Antarctic Peninsula?
    • Who has the most wintering stations?
    • How many has Australia got?
    • Who is responsible for activities in the part of Antarctica that no country has claimed as territory?
    • If it was to be claimed, which state would have the strongest claim?
  • Ask students to list the countries operating these stations and to mark them in on a blank world map [PDF]. The class could then discuss what all these countries have in common.
    • How many of these countries are leading world powers?
    • How many are developing countries?
    • Why are the proportions the way they are?
  • On a blank map of Antarctica [PDF] have students mark in the territorial claims.
  • Using the information below students can discuss in groups why the priorities of Treaty Parties have changed over the years. To do this, they should take into account what was happening in the world around the time the Treaty came into force, in 1961, and compare it with what has happened since. The lists below each column can be a starting point for discussion. Students could also think ahead to what Australia's priorities might be in the year 2020.
Antarctic policy priorities
1960 1980 2000 2007 2020
Enhance sovereignty High Med Low Med ?
Maintain peace High Low Low Low ?
Protect environment Low Med High High ?
Undertake science Med Med High High ?
Maintain influence Med High High High ?
Develop economic resources Med Low Low Low ?

Issue - Fishing

Over-fishing in the Southern Ocean threatens extinction of commercially valuable fish. What can the Treaty parties do to stop fishing by people from countries that are not part of the Antarctic Treaty system?

This page was last modified on July 1, 2014.