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Antarctica: the treaty system and territorial claims

Published Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The unique treaty system that protects the Antarctic is constantly updated and sometimes challenged. A current Private Member’s Bill would implement recent changes in the UK.

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The UK is one of seven states with territorial claims in the Antarctic. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty froze all territorial disputes relating to the continent in order to further peaceful scientific investigation and conservation there, and its 1991 Protocol introduced stringent measures on environmental protection including a 50-year moratorium on mineral extraction. A new annex to this Protocol was agreed in 2005 which requires visitors to Antarctica to be prepared for an environmental emergency or pay for the clean-up of any damage: the Antarctic Bill 2012-13 would allow the UK to implement this and make some other minor changes.

The relationship between the Antarctic Treaty System and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – which includes the right to exploit the continental shelf up to 350 nautical miles from shore – is far from clear. Australia and Argentina are the only countries so far to have submitted a claim to a portion of the Antarctic’s extended continental shelf. The UK has only reserved the right to do so in future.

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