An insight into Antarctica and its territorial claims

By Jerico Agdan


1. Antarctica

Antarctica is the most isolated of the seven continents, and is called home only by penguins and a few other species of animals, as well as scientific researchers from around the world. That does not mean, however, that no country has tried to claim it in the past or present. In fact, it appears that many countries feel entitled to segments of its territory today.


2. Initial Territorial Claims

 Back when there was still unexplored land, in order to control a territory, you usually had to be an aboriginal inhabitant, a powerful occupying force, or the first to show up. In Antarctica’s case, there are no indigenous people, nor an occupying force.


The UK was the first to lay territorial claims to Antarctica. Their first ship landed there in the early 1800s, and land was claimed by the explorers and crew members who stuck British flags into the ice. Due to the harsh climate, Antarctica was not colonized. Since no settlements were established, Antarctica remained free from land claim disputes.


This unclaimed status was maintained until the early 1900s, when the United Kingdom claimed segments of Antarctica. They decided which parts qualified as theirs by pinpointing the extents of their naval explorations around the coastline of Antarctica, and then drawing straight lines inwards to the Geographic South Pole, claiming all of the parts of the land within those boundaries. Other countries followed the UK from 1930s, including France, Norway, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.


3. Antarctica During the Cold War

In the middle of the 20th Century, Argentina and Chile laid claims on lands within UK’s supposed territory. Britain was too busy with the Cold War to take any sort of action at the time, but later on it became a point of consternation. This took place just before the USA and Soviet Union both agreed that they would not claim land on Antarctica yet, but that they had a right to do so in the future. This conversation led to the 1959 Antarctica Treaty.


4. Formation of the 1959 Antarctica Treaty

In 1959, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, the French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Union of South Africa, Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America worked together to create the 1959 Antarctica Treaty.


The treaty states that all parties involved says, it is in the interest 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. Also, this treaty establishes the area as a condominium (multiple countries agree to have equal sovereignty over a territory).


Besides the disarmament aspects of the treaty, there are three main stipulations surrounding Antarctic land use. These stipulations were developed in 1959, and are still used today. They are as follows:


1. No military presence

2. No mining

3. No nuclear explosions


These rules meant that Antarctica was to be left to scientific researchers and nature, with a goal for minimal human-derived negative impacts. Because Antarctica is strictly scientifically purposed, it is forbidden for researchers to leave any evidence of having been there. Any garbage or waste of any kind generated while in Antarctica must be brought back out of Antarctica.


5. Who owns Antarctica? 

No one and everyone.

The 1959 Treaty stated that nobody held ownership of any land on Antarctica, but there remained a loophole: none of the countries involved in creating and signing the treaty had to give up their territorial claims. As the treaty states in Article IV, 1. extracted from the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty:


“Nothing contained in the Treaty shall be interpreted as: (a) a renunciation by any Contracting Party of previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica."


This is often reflected by the territorial lines presented on maps, outlining different segments as belonging to one of the initial treaty-signing countries. There is one large segment of Antarctica that has been left unclaimed, since it was not part of anybody’s supposed territory at the time of the treaty. This is the largest segment of unclaimed land on Earth, and it cannot be claimed because the treaty states that only contracting countries could hold territorial claims over Antarctica.


However, everyone can build permanently staffed bases in Antarctica because according to the treaty, Antarctica belongs to everyone. For instance, China built their bases on the continent. It won’t matter until 2040s when the mining ban comes up for review. Moreover, USA and Russia have the right to claim the land whenever they desire. However, currently Antarctica is still being used as it was intended: as a nature reserve and a scientific research centre.

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