Is the world getting ready for a rush on Antarctica’s resources? During the last general meeting of nations involved in the international oversight of the Antarctic, Russia announced that it wants to begin exploration for minerals and hydrocarbons in and around the so-called White Continent. The document submitted by the Russian delegation lists the key points of “development of the Russian Federation's activities in the Antarctic in 2020, and also for the long term.”
The list of demands may well have come as a shock for the rest of the international representatives involved in the June meeting, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. But even four months later, it has yet to make headlines – in large part because the meetings are held without the presence of outside observers. Nor do the 48 countries involved in the Antarctic Treaty System tend to broadcast information about the summits. The Russian document has, however, been posted discreetly on the Internet site of the treaty secretariat (www.ats.aq).
Moscow's plan to carry out “complex research into the mineral resources, hydrocarbons and other natural resources of Antarctica” could weaken the continent’s particular legal status by steering it toward a head-on collision with the Madrid Protocol. The Protocol made the largely virgin territory a sanctuary – “a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science” – where mining and other types of industrial exploration and exploitation are prohibited.
To protect Antarctica, a group of foreign dignitaries has launched an appeal to re-launch the ratification of the Madrid Protocol. In doing so, they hope that “stragglers” – 14 Antarctic Treaty member countries that never signed the accord – will finally do so. Among those calling for the ratification are former Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez, former Australian president Robert Hawke and former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard. They hope that by rallying the 14 holdouts, the key environmental document – which was originally signed in 1991 – will have its diplomatic weight reinforced.
Will this initiative be enough to avoid a rush to exploit the far-southern region’s resources? An Australian think tank called the Lowy Institute for International Policy has recently published a report urging Australian authorities to protect their national interests and “open discussions with like-minded states” to address questions of sovereignty and resources to be revisited in 2048. What the Institute is urging, in other words, is that from here on, the Madrid Protocol can be reopened by the signatories.
Australia – like France, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom, Chile and Argentina – is a so-called “holding” state, meaning it has territorial claims on the White Continent that have been frozen by the treaty. It is one of the oddities of this legal regime. The territorial claims of the seven “holding” states are effectively put on hold, but not questioned. Therefore each one of the seven maintains its rights but promises not to exercise them.
Mr. Rocard, who created and designed the Madrid Protocol with Mr. Hawke, says he’s confident the accord will hold up. “The protocol can be modified starting in 2048 if three quarters of the 12 consulting states agree,” says Mr. Rocard. “Now, at that date, the world will be living the harsh reality of global warming, which is already underway. To go and look for hydrocarbons in Antarctica will not seem like a good idea to anybody... but today, the fact that we are heading towards a period of a shortage of resources terrifies everyone.”
Like some other international treaties, the one regarding the Antarctic relies on the goodwill of the parties. As soon as one state takes liberties with the text, it could start to slide into a dangerous weakening of the treaty. It should be noted that the trial balloon launched by the Russians has, for the moment, produced no official protest from the governments of the other party states.
In addition, Russia’s announcement came just as China was reinforcing its positions in the Antarctic. Its new base in Kunlun, situated at an altitude of around 4,000 meters, towers over all the other scientific stations on the continent. That the symbolism is even stronger than the scientific interest of this station hardly seems evident to the consulting parties who are responsible for granting – theoretically on the sole criteria of scientific interest – the authorization to create these stations.
The Lowy Institute’s report notes the patriotic names given by China to these scientific stations as evidence of a “latent nationalism” in the Chinese policy toward Antarctica. There is a report that a “Welcome to China” sign has been installed near a Chinese station that is in fact right in the middle of territory considered by Canberra as Australian.
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Photo – John E. Lester