Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

The Antarctic Treaty System
and the Impact of United Nations Debates

Prepared by Marjorie Ann Browne

Specialist in International Relations
Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

In December 1994, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on the "Question of Antarctica" that, for the first time since 1984, was supportive of the work of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties. In the intervening years, the overall direction of the Assembly's considerations had been replacement of the regime established in the 1959 Antarctic Treaty with a new structure negotiated under U.N. auspices. This section discusses the impact of the U.N. debate on the work of the Antarctic Consultative Parties and the status of the environmental protocol to the Treaty.

Background and Analysis

The Antarctic Treaty, which entered into force on June 23, 1961, serves as the backbone of a system of organizations often referred to as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). A total of 43 countries are Contracting Parties to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The Treaty establishes a meeting of consultations among the "Consultative Parties" to it (the original 12 states party to the Treaty plus those invited, by virtue of establishing scientific research programs in Antarctica, to participate as consultative parties). The Antarctic Consultative Parties1 now 26 in number, meet annually to discuss common problems associated with their activities in the Antarctic. They have adopted, for governmental approval, an estimated 209 recommendations, 130 (62%) of which have entered into force.

Additional components of the ATS include the other treaties negotiated and adopted by the Antarctic Consultative Parties. They include the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. In 1988, the Antarctic Consultative Parties negotiated and opened for signature a Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities. This treaty did not enter into force and was suspended. A Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was adopted and opened for signature on October 4, 1991 (through October 3) 1992). Lastly, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research is an active participant in the ATS, providing scientific information and reports to the Antarctic Consultative Meetings on a wide variety of issues before the Meetings.

By the early 1980s, the ATS was being criticized by some as "an exclusive club," with participation in the consultative meetings excluding both treaty parties who were not consultative parties and international organizations that have some expertise on issues discussed at the meetings. Moreover, consultative meetings were closed to the public and some reports submitted for discussion at the meetings were never released as public documents. These circumstances fostered suspicions among those outside the system over the actions of consultative parties and raised questions over the accountability of the ATS to the larger international community.

Changes by the Antarctic Consultative Parties

Between 1983 and 1994, the U.N. General Assembly took up the "Question of Antarctica". Spurred by Antarctic Consultative Party negotiations on a mineral resource regime, Antigua and Barbuda and Malaysia, as initiators of the discussion, sought assurances that activities in Antarctica were carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole. The Consultative Parties maintained that the Antarctic Treaty was open to all nations and had averted international strife and territorial disputes over Antarctica. From 1984 through 1993, the Consultative Parties did not participate in the Assembly discussions and votes on Antarctica. Those U.N. discussions, however, did have an impact.

Starting with their September 1983 meeting, the Consultative Parties carried out a number of decisions that expanded participation in the ATS process, made information more accessible, and increased the regulatory basis for protection of the Antarctic region. They granted non-consultative treaty parties observer status at the consultative meetings, provided the U.N. Secretary-General with a copy of the consultative meeting final reports and other information, expanded substantive comments in the final reports of the meetings to include the content of the discussions, established in each Consultative State Party a national contact point charged with information functions, and negotiated a protocol to the Antarctic Treaty on comprehensive measures for the protection of the Antarctic environment.

Following actions of this type, the U.N. General Assembly in 1994 adopted by consensus a resolution that focussed on the positive and forward-looking aspects of the Antarctic Treaty System and the work of the Consultative Parties, rather than the negative and confrontational aspects of past resolutions. The 1994 resolution was supported by the Consultative Parties. The next Assembly consideration of Antarctica, in 1996, produced a resolution, endorsing the work of the Consultative Parties and scheduling the following Assembly debate for 1999.

The 19th Antarctic Consultative Meeting took place in Seoul, South Korea, May 8-19, 1995. At that meeting, the Consultative Parties made a major change in the system of Recommendations used by prior meetings. They set up three categories of Recommendations, each with differing effect and entry into force (Measures, Decisions, Resolutions). Texts intended to be legally binding after approval by each of the Consultative Parties will be called Measures and will follow the previous Antarctic Treaty procedures under Article Ix. Texts relating to an international organizational matter will be operative at adoption or as specified in the text and will be called Decisions. A hortatory text will be contained in a Resolution.

Status of the Issue

The 20th Antarctic Consultative Meeting took place between April 26 and May 10, 1996, in Utrecht, Netherlands. Most of the work focussed on further implementation of decisions already taken and on the steps to be taken when the Protocol on Environmental Protection entered into force. The 21st meeting will take place May 19-30, 1997, in Christchurch, New Zealand.

As of April 20,1997, entry into force of the Protocol on Environmental Protection awaited action by Japan and Russia. The Protocol will enter into force on the 30th day following the date of deposit of instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession by all states that were Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties on the date it was adopted. The U.S. Senate approved U.S. ratification of the Protocol on October 7, 1992. On October 2, 1996, the President signed into law implementing legislation (P.L. 104-227; H.R. 3060, Antarctic Environmental Protection Act of 1996). The United States deposited its instrument of ratification on April 18, 1997.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

What is the continuing impact of participation by components of the United Nations system in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings? How will entry into force of the Protocol on Environmental Protection modify the relationship between the U.N. system and the Antarctic Treaty system?

Sources and References for Further Information

Angelini, Jennifer and Andrew Mansfield. "A Call for U.S. Ratification of the Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection." Ecology Law Quarterly, v.21, no.1, 1994: 163-241.

"Antarctic Treaty Special Consultative Meeting on Antarctic Mineral Resources: Final Act and Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities." International Legal Materials. 27(4), July 1988: 859-900.

Beck, Peter J. "The United Nations and Antarctica 1993: Continuing Controversy About the UN's Role in Antarctica." Polar Record, v.30 (1994), October 1994: 257-264.

"Decisions, Measures, and Resolutions adopted at the XIXth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. Seoul, Korea, 8-19 May 1995." SCAR Bulletin No. 121, April 1996. Polar Record, v.32, April 1996: 184-195.

Klotz, Frank G. America on the Ice: Antarctic Policy Issues. National Defense University Press. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1990. 345 p.

National Research Council, Polar Research Board. Antarctic Treaty System, an Assessment. Proceedings of a Workshop held at Beardmore South Field Camp, Antarctica, January 7-13, 1985. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1986. 435 p.

Science and Stewardship in the Antarctic. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1993. 107 p.

U.S Central Intelligence Agency. Polar Regions Atlas. Washington, DC: 1978. 66 p. (Available from Antarctic Project, 218 D St. SE, Washington DC, 20003.)

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Polar Prospects: a Minerals Treaty for Antarctica. OTA-0-428. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., September 1989. 218 p.

U.S. President (1993-1996; Clinton). National Science and Technology Council. United States Antarctic Program. Washington, DC: April 1996. (available on internet at "http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/antpro/")

U.S. President (1989-1993; Bush). Protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic Treaty; message. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1992. 108 p. (Senate Treaty Doc. 102-22, 102d Cong., 2d Sess.) Transmits a copy of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, with annexes, done at Madrid, Spain, on Oct. 4, 1991, and an additional annex done at Bonn, Germany, on Oct.17, 1991.

Vicuna, Francisco Orrego. "The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty; Questions of Effectiveness." Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, v.7, fall 1994: 1-13.


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