The International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957–58 occurred during the Cold War. The world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, had research stations in Antarctica, and both countries had wide-ranging research programmes. They had a similar outlook regarding the continent: neither had made territorial claims and nor did they recognise the claims other nations had made.
The US decided to capitalise on the situation, and in 1959 hosted a conference in Washington DC about the political and international status of the continent. The resulting Antarctic Treaty was agreed to by the 12 participating states (which had all taken part in the IGY). The treaty, which came into force on 23 June 1961, is short and straightforward. It has only 14 articles (which take up only about six printed pages).
In the midst of the Cold War, the treaty declared that ‘Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.’ Any measures of a military nature were outlawed, and nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste were entirely prohibited. Antarctica effectively became the world’s first nuclear-free zone.
Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty shelved the problem of territorial claims and the even more vexing problem of overlapping claims. It stated that nothing in the treaty could be interpreted as a denial ‘of previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty’, and that activities taking place while the treaty was in force would not constitute a basis for claiming sovereignty. In addition, no new claims (or enlargements of existing claims) were permitted to be made during the life of the treaty.
Enforcement and consultation
The treaty has no formal enforcement mechanisms (and until 2010 had no standing secretariat), but contracting parties to the treaty can designate observers to inspect other nations’ activities and bases.
The 12 nations that originally signed the treaty are all consultative parties, as are an additional 17 states ‘conducting substantial research activity’ – countries that have demonstrated their interest in Antarctica and have signed the treaty since its initial ratification. By 2015 a further 24 states had also signed the treaty without becoming consultative parties.
Nash of the Antarctic
New Zealand Prime Minister Walter Nash went to some of the Antarctic Conference sessions in Washington DC in 1959 even though it was clear that his own views favouring an ‘international regime’ in Antarctica were not supported. Nash did not visit Antarctica while he was in office, but did so in January 1964, shortly before his 82nd birthday. Newspapers at the time said he was the oldest man to have visited the South Pole.
New Zealand’s unique role
As a claimant state and a participant in the IGY’s Antarctic research programme, New Zealand took part in the Washington conference. New Zealand was the only claimant state prepared to surrender its territorial claims in Antarctica. Prime Minister Walter Nash said he would ‘have wished to see the conference agree on a more imaginative and more adventurous approach to the problems arising from claims to sovereignty in Antarctica.’1
Although Nash’s plea for ‘wise adventures in the Antarctic’2 did not come to fruition with regard to territorial claims, the conference – and all that has occurred since the Antarctic Treaty was signed – underscored New Zealand’s position as a small country which is, nevertheless, a major player on the Antarctic stage.