Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 06:08 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 06:08 | SYDNEY

Time to review Australia Antarctic policy

8 June 2011 17:31

Ellie Fogarty is the Lowy Institute's 2011 National Security Fellow. All views are her own, and do not reflect the position of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or the Australian Government.

This week marks a notable development in global understanding of the Antarctic landscape, with an Australian-led team of international researchers using ice-penetrating radars to create detailed maps of Antarctica's topography beneath the ice.

For a continent whose surface was previously less well known than that of Mars, this is a significant discovery. Given that Australia has claimed sovereignty over 42% of the continent (the Australian Antarctic Territory or AAT; this claim is suspended by the 1959 Antarctica Treaty), this represents a opportunity for Australia to advance its understanding of a substantial area of the earth integral to its long-term national interests, and provides a catalyst for Australia to review its Antarctic policy.

The Antarctic Treaty and its supplementary international instruments, which together make up the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), have been described as an unprecedented success in international law and diplomacy. Under the Treaty and its 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection, states parties agreed to preserve Antarctica as an area for peace and cooperative scientific research, and to desist from any non-scientific activity relating to mineral resources until at least 2048.

But over the last decade, several states have amplified their activities on Antarctica in a manner which appears inconsistent with ATS objectives, in particular, with references to their interests in Antarctica's resources, particularly oil and gas, and how these might be distributed and utilised

Additionally, a number of states have established or planned new bases on the AAT. Although Australia's suspended sovereignty prohibits it from objecting to such developments, the lack of notice provided in some cases emphasises Australia's inability exercise authority over the AAT and its occupation during the life of the Treaty.

Since 1959, Australia's Antarctic policy has been directed at contributing to the continent's protection, and ensuring Australia remains an active member of the ATS and a leader in Antarctic sciences. But with other states revisiting their Antarctic policies to position themselves favourably for any future discussion on Antarctica's administration, now is a pertinent time for Australia to scrutinise its policy to determine whether it is suitably robust and flexible to protect Australia's interests.

In the meantime, Australia must remain visible on the AAT, continue to discuss Antarctic administration through the ATS, and retain its position as a world leader in Antarctic sciences through delivery of noteworthy research such as the topographical mapping released this week.

This will reiterate Australia's continued belief in the legitimacy of its suspended sovereignty claim and its commitment to contributing to the management of the continent. 

Photo by Flickr user House Photography.