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UPSC Sansad TV : In-Depth- The Antarctic Treaty

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The Antarctic continent is vast. It embraces the South Pole with permanent ice and snow. It is encircled by floating barriers of ice, stormy seas and appalling weather. Its great altitude chills the air to extremes, and its descent to sea level across a moving ice sheet generates the world’s strongest winds. The cycling seasons reveal the spectacular natural forces of our planet. The surrounding seas teem with wildlife. And just 2% of this continent is free of ice, allowing a small toe-hold for hardy animals and plants. The discovery and exploration of Antarctica was shaped by the continent’s remoteness and its extraordinarily inhospitable environment. These factors combined for centuries to keep humans away from all but the subantarctic islands and parts of the Southern Ocean where whaling and sealing took place. In human historic terms, the land exploration of Antarctica is recent, most of it being accomplished during the twentieth century. The improved technology and knowledge of the last 100 years allowed greater access to the continent, encouraging detailed surveying and research, and the gradual occupation of Antarctica by scientific stations

Antarctica Treaty System:

  • The Antarctic Treaty stands as a beacon of hope for global conservation efforts. By preserving Antarctica as a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science, it serves as a model for international cooperation in protecting our planet’s fragile ecosystems
  • Emerged from concerns over conflicting territorial claims in Antarctica in the early 20th century.
  • Diplomatic efforts led to the signing of the treaty on December 1, 1959, in Washington, D.C
  • The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements are collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS).
  • It regulates international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth’s only continent without a native human population.
  • For the purposes of the treaty system, Antarctica is defined as all of the land and ice shelves south of 60°S latitude.
  • The treaty sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation, and bans military activity on the continent.
  • The treaty was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War.
  • India is a signatory of this treaty since 1983.

Current relevance:

  • Since the treaty was negotiated in a very different era and there have been a number of environmental, resource and geopolitical disputes related to Antarctica in recent decades.
  • The treaty is remarkably short and contains only 14 articles.
  • While the Antarctic Treaty has been able to successfully respond to a range of challenges, circumstances are radically different in the 2020s compared to the 1950s.Antarctica is much more accessible, partly due to technology but also climate change.
  • More countries now have substantive interests in the continentthan the original 12. Some global resources are becoming scarce, especially oil.
  • There is considerable speculation as to China’s interests in Antarctic resources, especially fisheries and minerals, and whether China may seek to exploit weaknesses in the treaty system to secure access to those resources.
  • Reports have claimed that compared to last year, 40 per cent more tourists, numbering about 80,000, are expected to visit Antarctica, the least visited continent in the world.
  • In September, a report on oceans released by the IPCC said that between 2006 and 2015, the Antarctic ice sheet lost about 155 billion tonnes of mass on average every year.
  • This ice melt from Antarctica likely contributed to sea-level rises.
  • The main sources of environmental damage to the continent include planet-wide impacts such as global warming, ozone layer depletion, impacts of fishing and hunting (of whales and seals) and lastly, the impact of visitors which includes scientists and tourists.
  • Though the compact has held for 60 years, there have been tensions from time to time. Argentina and the UK, for instance, have overlapping claims to territory on the continent. When combined with their ongoing dispute over the nearby Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, their Antarctic relationship remains frosty.
  • Therefore, all of the treaty signatories, but especially those with significant stakes in the continent, need to give the future of the treaty more attention.


  • The Antarctic Treaty is a shining example of international cooperation and environmental stewardship.
  • Its principles remain relevant in addressing contemporary challenges such as climate change.
  • A key reason why the treaty has been able to survive has been its ability to evolve through a number of additional conventions and other legal protocols.
  • These have dealt with the conservation of marine living resources, prohibitions on mining, and the adoption of comprehensive environmental protection mechanisms.
  • Encouraging active participation and collaboration among all stakeholders, including governments, scientific institutions, NGOs, and indigenous communities, is essential for achieving the treaty’s objectives.
  • Building, operating and conducting scientific research programs are key to the success not only of the treaty, but also to the claimants’ credibility in Antarctica.
  • However, the need of the hour is to promote public awareness and education on the importance of Antarctica’s conservation and the role of the Antarctic Treaty in global environmental governance.