Sovereignty and territorial claims

Map of Antarctic territory claims
Territory claims (Image: AAD Data Centre)

In addition to Australia's Antarctic Territory, six other nations claim Antarctic territory. Some of these areas overlap.

Sovereignty in Antarctica is important to Australia, even though its claim is not supported by most of the other Antarctic Treaty countries. The Treaty puts aside disputes over territorial claims by providing that no activities taking place while the Treaty is in force can be used to assert, support or deny a claim. No new claims can be made.

  • Having a strong presence and strong international regime in Antarctica minimises the risk of external threats to Australia from that direction. If there was no Treaty, what threats could come to Australia from the South?

Prior to the Treaty, seven countries had a historic claim to Antarctic territory. See the map of Antarctic Territorial Claims [PDF]. There are 48 treaty parties. Of these, seven claim territory in Antarctica (claimants), 12 are Original Signatories, and 28 are Consultative Parties. The Treaty entered into force on 23 June 1961. Only four other countries (all claimants themselves) have recognised Australia's claim to territory. With the signing of the original Treaty, the claimants to the territory were in the majority, but now that they are not, the claimants may have less influence. This is partly because decisions are taken by consensus and claimants do not (normally) have a special role. The strength of the Treaty is that it protects the interest of all nations that participate in the Treaty system, including the claimants.

  • Ask students to research territorial claims in Antarctica.
    • Which countries have staked territorial claims?
    • What are the reasons for their claims?
    • Which countries don't have claims? Why?
    • Which claims overlap?
    • What are possible consequences of these overlapping claims?
  • Main reasons for Antarctic claims - geographical proximity: Australia and New Zealand; regarded as geographical extension of their country: Argentina and Chile; significant role in Antarctic exploration: Australia, France, New Zealand, Norway, United Kingdom.
  • In groups, students could script a play about how Argentina, Chile, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, France and Norway each claimed Antarctic territory, and how some of these countries didn't recognise the claims of other countries. The play can also look at how other (non-claimant) countries built stations inside the territory of the claimant countries, and examine how the Antarctic Treaty didn't so much settle the differences, as prevent further territorial disputes during the life of the Treaty.
  • Have students research Australia's Antarctic program.
    • What does Australia do in Antarctica?
    • Why do we do it?
    • Why is it important enough to spend many millions of dollars on each year?
    • See the articles in the Australian Antarctic Magazine for information on current projects.
    • Politician's view - 'The Australian territorial claim has done much to preserve a reasonable level of government support for the Antarctic program.' Have students discuss this proposition in groups.

Issue - Sovereignty

Only four other countries recognise the Australian Antarctic Territory. This means that people of other nationalities visiting the AAT might ignore our laws. In particular those laws relating to illegal fishing, bycatch mitigation and whale hunting. Does this matter? If it does, should we do anything about it? What can we do?

Issue - Competing resources

In a climate where government funding is restricted, should most scientific activities be centred around the stations or out in the wider Antarctica? If we operate more remote field bases, can we afford to close one of the permanent stations?

This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.