Overview of Antarctic Governance

Many people have questions about Antarctica and how it is governed or managed. Below, we explain the basics of Antarctic governance and how our organization participates as an observer in the Antarctic governance system.

Who owns Antarctica?

No single country owns Antarctica. Instead, countries wishing to have a say in how the Antarctic (both the continent itself and the surrounding Southern Ocean) is governed must sign on to, and agree to abide by, the Antarctic Treaty.

However, prior to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 several countries had made claims to parts of Antarctica, some of which overlapped. The Treaty does not recognize or annul these claims.Article IV of the Treaty states in part, “No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica.”

By avoiding the claims issue in this way, it was possible to produce a treaty that many parties could sign. Unfortunately, this means that while many countries follow the spirit of cooperation of the Treaty, there are still disputes over territory that remain unresolved and come up from time to time.

1024px-1959_Antarctic_TreatyOne of the original copy of the Antarctic Treaty. The 12 nations that signed the Antarctic Treaty on December 1959 were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the USSR, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. This document is an Australian Archive document which fall within the open access period, and is now publicly available. This picture was taken in the Tasmanian Museum Art Gallery.

When was the Antarctic Treaty signed?Who signed it?

The Treaty was originally signed in 1959. The original signatories were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These countries had been active participants in the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), a project designed to stimulate geophysical research worldwide.

The IGY resulted in the establishment of numerous research bases in Antarctica, and the Treaty grew out of a desire to ensure that the valuable research of the IGY could continue.


Since then, many other countries have acceded to the Antarctic Treaty.There are now 28 Consultative Parties, which have the ability to vote on decisions, and 19 Non-Consultative Parties, which attend meetings but cannot vote.

To become a Consultative Party, a country must demonstrate that it is conducting substantive scientific research in Antarctica. Non-consultative Parties may be conducting important research but not at the same level as Consultative Parties.

What are the provisions of the Treaty?

The original Antarctic Treaty contains fourteen articles, eleven of which relate directly to Antarctic governance. The rest concern other aspects of the Treaty, such as the nation that will be the repository for Treaty, the procedures for ratification and accession, and the process for amending the Treaty.

The other articles establish Antarctica as an area free from military activity and encourage scientific research and the exchange of scientific information between parties, as well as cooperation and peaceful conflict resolution.

Click here to read the original text of the Treaty or here to read a summary of the other articles.

Antarctic Treaty Parties meet every year for Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs) to discuss how to carry out the requirements of the Treaty.

How has the Treaty changed since then?

The most important addition to the Treaty was the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which was agreed in 1991 and which came into force in 1998. The Protocol proclaims that protection of the Antarctic environment shall be considered paramount when planning and carrying out activities, thus expanding the purview of the Treaty.

It enumerates the environmental principles to which Parties shall adhere and, importantly, prohibits mineral and gas development. It also details procedures for environmental impact and assessment. The Protocol was a major step forward and it prevents unwise practices such as the dumping of waste from research bases directly into the Southern Ocean. Read the Protocol here.

What other legal agreements govern Antarctica?

There are three other major agreements that are considered part of the Antarctic Treaty System:

  • The Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Flora and Fauna (adopted 1964). These measures, which were more or less incorporated into Annex II of the Protocol for Protection of the Antarctic Environment, prohibit the taking of species without a permit and the introduction of non-native species, and designate specially protected species.
  • The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) (adopted 1972) establishes measures designed to conserve Antarctic seal populations, including the issuing of permits for the killing of seals. Although the Convention allows for the commercial hunting of seals, no commercial hunting currently takes place in the Antarctic.
  • The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) (adopted 1980) adopts the ecosystem approach to managing the commercial exploitation of marine resources such as fish and crustaceans.Learn more about CCAMLR.

Are there any other international agreements have a major impact on the Antarctic?

Antarctica’s whales fall under the purview of the International Whaling Commission, an organization separate from the Antarctic Treaty System.All members of the Antarctic Treaty are part of the IWC except Ukraine. Learn more about the IWC here.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) makes international rules that govern shipping, many of which impact Antarctic ships, and it is currently considering adoption of a Polar Code that would impose special regulations on ships traveling in Antarctic or Arctic waters. Learn more about the IMO here.

How do the provisions in these agreements get translated into day-to-day decisions?

To fulfill their treaty obligations, treaty parties must undertake actions at the national and international level. Individual nations agree to require citizens of their countries to abide by certain rules and regulations, and must pass legislation or institute appropriate regulations.

In the cases of CCAMLR and the Antarctic Treaty and Protocol, yearly meetings are held to make decisions on issues requiring the input of all parties to the agreements. Essentially, decisions that apply to the entire Antarctic or to Antarctic waters are made at yearly meetings, and then countries must go home and ensure that the decisions are upheld.

For example, at an Antarctic Treaty meeting, consultative parties might decide to designate an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA). Individual nations would then be charged with making their citizens apply for permits to enter those areas for scientific study.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of governing Antarctica by international treaties?

The signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 was an impressive achievement. Despite the existence of Cold War tensions and unresolved territorial disputes, the Parties to the Treaty agreed that the benefits of scientific cooperation outweighed individual national interests.

While it certainly helped that Antarctica is a remote, inhospitable place from which resource extraction would be difficult, the decision to sign the Treaty was nevertheless a revolutionary step that enabled much important scientific research to occur without interference.

The Antarctic Treaty has been in place for fifty years with no major problems. However, the consensus-based decision making that takes place within the Antarctic Treaty System can be problematic.Consensus-based decision making does not mean that everyone must agree, but that no one can voice disagreement.

So one country, if it feels strongly about an issue, can stop a resolution from going forward.This is true for many similar international bodies. Additionally, without legal penalties for violating agreements most Parties are essentially on their honor to abide by their obligations under the Antarctic Treaty, CCAMLR, CCAS, and the Protocol. On the plus side, these Treaties have been existence for several decades and Parties seem committed to working within their frameworks.

What role does the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) play in Antarctic governance?

ASOC, as an NGO, plays much the same role in Antarctic governance as non-profit environmental organizations play in national governance – raising awareness of environmental issues and ensuring that agreed regulations are observed.

ASOC has been fortunate to receive observer status in the Antarctic Treaty System, which means that we can attend and participate in meetings, particularly ATCMs and CCAMLR meetings, although we cannot vote on decisions. We attend meetings and monitor official decisions, submit informational papers on major issues, and meet with government officials to present the environmental community’s perspective.

Since Antarctica doesn’t have a population, it is vital to have a group that can promote what is best for the Antarctic environment and its flora and fauna – penguins can make a lot of noise but they aren’t very articulate. Much as other NGOs raise awareness of national issues and press governments to act, ASOC works to ensure that the countries that make decisions about Antarctica have the best possible information so they can protect the fragile environment.

Since the consensus-based decision process can often be slow to produce results, ASOC encourages governments to move forward on contentious issues and works to provide information that can convince them of the need to act. During annual Treaty meetings, Parties frequently express their appreciation for the papers that ASOC provides. We make timely and useful contributions to discussions at these meetings even though we cannot vote.


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