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Australia's Antarctic challenge

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COMMENTS

16 August 2011 08:47

Hugh Wyndham served in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, serving as a member or leader of Australian delegations to four Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings.

The Lowy Institute is to be congratulated for raising the issue of Australia's future Antarctic policy, something which too often escapes public attention. However, I have a few concerns with the thrust of the new paper, Antarctica: Assessing and Protecting Australia's National Interests, and a couple of nits to pick.

First of all, it is not correct to say that claims are 'frozen' or 'dormant'. The effect of Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty is that the cooperation which existed between claimant and non-claimant states during the 18 months of the International Geophysical Year 1957-58 would continue unimpeded by conflicting positions regarding territorial sovereignty.

Claims were not required to be withdrawn, but nothing done while the Treaty is in force has the effect of strengthening or weakening claims already made. The Treaty also provides that no new claims may be made. The paper correctly mentions some of the measures that Australia has taken from time to time to demonstrate that its claim is still in force. However, importantly, these provisions only apply to or between Parties to the Treaty.

Ellie Fogarty also writes that Australia's Antarctica program should be moved into one of the national security agencies.

In its early days, the Australian Antarctic Division was a dependency of the then Department of External Affairs and it is not difficult to imagine why that should have been so. Since it moved away from that Department, it has been the responsibility of various ministers, but the successors to the Department of External Affairs, currently DFAT, have retained a significant role in the development of policy.

The Australian delegation to the most recent Consultative Meeting, for example, was led by the then senior legal adviser in DFAT's International Organisations and Legal Division and her successor was also a member of the delegation. Officers of the Australian Antarctic Division, however, made up the bulk of the delegation. This is an arrangement which has served Australia well and I would argue, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Ellie Fogarty's blog post refers to a time 'beyond the life of the Treaty'. I am not sure to what she refers, as the Treaty will continue in perpetuity until and unless a Party asks for a review conference and there is such a disagreement at that conference that the whole structure breaks down. The Treaty provides that a review conference may be called at any time after the Treaty has been in force for 30 years; that year was 1991 and there has been no call for a review conference since then, so it is reasonable to think that the Parties are happy with things as they are.

Whether the same will apply to the Madrid Protocol, which I helped to negotiate, only time will tell. However, one has to be coldly realistic. If a resource is found in the Antarctic which could be extracted profitably – none has been found to date or is in imminent prospect – the international community will face a major policy dilemma, particularly if that resource is scarce elsewhere.

Claimant states will not be able on their own to prevent or regulate resource extraction. It is therefore in Australia's interest that the Antarctic Treaty system be so strong that, if such a situation were to arise, it could be dealt with appropriately without causing the breakdown of a system which has served us well for 50 years.

Australia's ability to influence the evolution of the Antarctic Treaty system will continue to depend, as it always has, both on the level and quality of the scientific work done by Australia in the region and the quality of the intellectual input to policy development for which DFAT holds the prime responsibility, in close collaboration with the Antarctic Division.

Whether or not the current level and quality of the scientific and policy effort being made by Australia is adequate to enable Australia to play the role which it traditionally has in Antarctic Treaty affairs, I am not in a position to say. However, the Lowy Institute has clearly raised the question and one can only hope that others will pick up the subject and give it the thought it deserves.

Photo by Flickr user Martha de Jong-Lantink.

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