The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington DC, on 1 December 1959. This is the first major Treaty that submits a part of the planet to specific international governance.
The area covered by this Treaty is defined as the one extending below the 60th parallel of the southern hemisphere. Antarctica is therefore both a continental and a marine area.
The treaty exclusively hands over the area to scientific research and excludes any military activity.
The Antarctic Treaty system, in addition to the Washington Treaty, includes two other legally binding instruments:
• The Convention for the conservation of Antarctic Seals (London, June 1972) ;
• The CCAMLR Convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources (Canberra, May 1980).
A single Treaty
The Antarctic Treaty will remain in the annals of international law as a unique instrument for several reasons:
- firstly, this is the first of the major treaties that submits a part of the planet to specific international governance, devoted exclusively to scientific use;
- next, it is a unique example of hierarchical organisation of States and privileges granted to some nations over others. Because, while Antarctica governance is an international governance, it is however not universal.
States are classified in three categories:
• The founding states: these are the original signatories to the Treaty. Belgium is one of them.
• Consultative Parties: these States have demonstrated their ability to participate in research in Antarctica. Originally 15 in number, these consultative parties may participate in co-opting new signatory States, which in turn may participate in Antarctic research activities.
• Observers: non signatories, these States are interested in the activities but do not have the technical abilities to participate.
The exclusive scientific use
The Treaty exclusively hands over the area to scientific research. In 1959, technical and financial resources required by a polar expedition guaranteed scientists with de facto monopoly on access and stay on the Antarctic continent. It is no longer the same today. In practice, and sometimes under the guise of scientific purpose, some business activities (extreme tourism, cruises, etc.) are conducted below the 60th parallel. A corollary to scientific exclusivity is the prohibition of any military activity. Another corollary is the prohibition of exploration and exploitation activities of natural mineral or fossil resources. This prohibition is the result of negotiations subsequent to the Treaty that led to the Madrid Protocol of 1991 on the protection of the environment. It was ratified by Belgium in 1996 and entered into force in 1998.