Antarctic Treaty System

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Graham Bertram (NAVA) 1996 conceptual flag for Antarctica
Graham Bertram (NAVA) 1996 conceptual flag for Antarctica

The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements, collectively called the Antarctic Treaty System or ATS, regulate the international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth's only uninhabited continent. For the purposes of the treaty system, Antarctica is defined as all land and ice shelves south of the southern 60th parallel. The treaty was signed by 12 countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, and set aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation and banned military activity on that continent. This was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War.


The Antarctic Treaty System

Research stations and territorial claims in Antarctica (2002).
Research stations and territorial claims in Antarctica (2002).

The (Main) Antarctic Treaty

The main treaty was opened for signature on December 1, 1959, and officially entered into force on June 23, 1961. The original signatories were the 12 countries active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 and willing to accept a US invitation to the conference at which the treaty was negotiated. These countries were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the U.S.S.R., the United Kingdom and the United States of America (which opened the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for the International Geophysical Year).

Articles of the Antarctic Treaty

  • Article 1 - area to be used for peaceful purposes only; military activity, such as weapons testing, is prohibited, but military personnel and equipment may be used for scientific research or any other peaceful purpose;
  • Article 2 - freedom of scientific investigation and cooperation shall continue;
  • Article 3 - free exchange of information and personnel in cooperation with the United Nations and other international agencies;
  • Article 4 - does not recognize, dispute, or establish territorial claims and no new claims shall be asserted while the treaty is in force;
  • Article 5 - prohibits nuclear explosions or disposal of radioactive wastes;
  • Article 6 - includes under the treaty all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees 00 minutes south;
  • Article 7 - treaty-state observers have free access, including aerial observation, to any area and may inspect all stations, installations, and equipment; advance notice of all activities and of the introduction of military personnel must be given;
  • Article 8 - allows for jurisdiction over observers and scientists by their own states;
  • Article 9 - frequent consultative meetings take place among member nations;
  • Article 10 - treaty states will discourage activities by any country in Antarctica that are contrary to the treaty;
  • Articles 12, 13, 14 - deal with upholding, interpreting, and amending the treaty among involved nations.

The main objective of the ATS is to ensure in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord. The treaty forbids any measures of a military nature, but not the presence of military personnel per se. It also defers the question of territorial claims asserted by some nations and not recognized by others.

Other agreements

Other agreements - some 200 recommendations adopted at treaty consultative meetings and ratified by governments - include:


The Antarctic Treaty System's yearly Atlantic Treaty Consultative Meetings are the international forum for the administration and management of the region. Only 27 of the 44 parties to the agreements have the right to participate in these meetings. These parties are the Consultative Parties and, in addition to the twelve original signatories, include 15 countries that have demonstrated their interest in Antarctica by carrying out substantial scientific activity there. These additional countries are Brazil, Bulgaria, the People's Republic of China, Ecuador, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, South Korea, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay.

The 17 Non-Consultative Parties are Austria, Canada, Colombia, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and Venezuela.

At the end of 1999, there were 44 treaty member nations: 27 consultative and 17 acceding. Consultative (voting) members include the seven nations that claim portions of Antarctica as national territory (some claims overlap) and 20 nonclaimant nations. The 20 nonclaimant nations do not recognize the claims of others. In addition, though Russia and the United States have made no claims, they have reserved the right to do so. The year in parentheses indicates when an acceding nation was voted to full consultative (voting) status, while no date indicates the country was an original 1959 treaty signatory.

Claimant nations

The claims of Argentina, Chile and the UK overlap.

Nonclaimant consultative nations

Acceding (nonvoting) members

(year of accession in parentheses)

Legal system

Antarctica has no government. Various countries claim areas of it, but most countries do not recognize those claims. The area between 90 degrees west and 150 degrees west is the only land on Earth not claimed by any country.

According to Argentine regulations, any crime committed within 50km of distance from any Argentine base is to be judged in Ushuaia (as capital of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, and South Atlantic Islands). In the part of Argentine Antarctica that is also claimed by Chile the person to be judged can ask to be transferred there.

From a US perspective, US law, including certain criminal offenses by or against US nationals, such as murder, may apply to areas not under jurisdiction of other countries. Some US laws directly apply to Antarctica. For example, the Antarctic Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. section 2401 et seq., provides civil and criminal penalties for the following activities, unless authorized by regulation of statute:

  • the taking of native mammals or birds;
  • the introduction of nonindigenous plants and animals;
  • entry into specially protected or scientific areas;
  • the discharge or disposal of pollutants;
  • the importation into the US of certain items from Antarctica

Violation of the Antarctic Conservation Act carries penalties of up to $10,000 in fines and one year in prison. The Departments of Treasury, Commerce, Transportation, and Interior share enforcement responsibilities.

Public Law 95-541, the US Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978, requires expeditions from the US to Antarctica to notify, in advance, the Office of Oceans and Polar Affairs, Room 5801, Department of State, Washington, DC 20520, which reports such plans to other nations as required by the Antarctic Treaty.

For more information, contact Permit Office, Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia 22230; telephone: (703) 306-1031, or see the website of NSF (listed below).

See also

Claims on Antarctica
Adélie Land | Argentine Antarctica | Australian Antarctic Territory | British Antarctic Territory | Chilean Antarctica | Queen Maud Land | Peter I Island | Ross Dependency

External links

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