A Cold Community: the governance of the world’s uninhabited continent


Throughout mankind’s interaction with the frozen continent, Antarctica has stood not just as a beckoning challenge in the eyes of adventurers and scientists, but also as a domain to be conquered by countries and empires. At time of writing, seven different countries lay claims to areas of Antarctica: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the United States and Russia both maintain their ability to lay claim, though have not yet acted upon it. Many would argue that the age of colonialism is over – the decades after the end of the Second World War have seen mass decolonisation efforts, with self-determination being granted to the citizens of former colonies. But what is to be done about territory that has no citizens? If independence is impossible, what makes one external claim more valid than another? There are, broadly, three ways to look at this.

The governments of the world could, rather than squabble over ownership, treat the continent as a land to be regulated for the betterment of mankind.

The Geographical Approach:

It may seem logical to some that Antarctica should become the responsibility of those countries it lies closest to geographically. This logic is used to support the claims of Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. However, as is currently the case, nearby countries may lay claim to the same areas. The overlapping of territorial claims has been a contentious issue in international relations before, particularly between the United Kingdom and Argentina, between whom the only instance of shots being fired on Antarctica occurred in 1952. Furthermore, this argument would give rise to a claim from South Africa who currently do not recognise any claims over Antarctica as they subscribe to the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). This logic may, therefore, lead to the abandonment of Antarctic land that could otherwise be used for scientific development. For these reasons, it does not seem appropriate for claims over Antarctica to be given legitimacy due to a country’s geographical proximity.

The Historical Approach:

Instead, one could argue that the appropriate method of dividing Antarctica would be based on the historical claims made by different countries. This would favour the claims of the United Kingdom, France and Norway. Such a plan would bear issues of its own, however. Firstly, certain countries, such as Spain, were the original ‘discoverers’ of areas of Antarctica, but have since relinquished their claims. This would, once again, see areas left unoccupied to either be abandoned or claimed by other nations – and therefore not solving the issue. Secondly, this argument greatly favours Western nations with a history of colonialism, which many would say should not be rewarded in the 21st century. Therefore, division based on historical claims does not appear to produce a desirable outcome.

The International Approach:

With the belief that there is no way to appropriately distribute Antarctica between claimant countries, some would argue that it is best to place the continent under the management of the United Nations, to be adjudicated upon internationally. This has been attempted through the Antarctic Treaty System. The International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 (IGY) led the twelve active countries in Antarctica to diplomatically express the co-operation that had been achieved on the ice. 54 parties have now signed on to the treaty that recognises Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation, and bans military activity on the continent. The governments of the world could, rather than squabble over ownership, treat the continent as a land to be regulated for the betterment of mankind.

Antarctica exists in a unique framework: a land without people, without resources, without political purpose. It could exist for the betterment of science, and the political world should respect this. In the absence of a native population, this section of the planet could be shared equitably and used to foster consensus and peace. The signing of the Antarctic Treaty was the first arms control agreement that occurred in the Cold War, demonstrating how Antarctica could serve as an olive branch between opposing superpower nations. This would, of course, require claimant countries to relinquish their claims of sovereignty – a gargantuan ask in the eyes of many. But it is perhaps the fairest, most mutually beneficial approach towards Antarctica.

Image: Christopher Michel via Flickr

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