Unfreezing international cooperation in Antarctica

In 1945 that Improper Bostonian Emily Greene Balch wrote: ''It would be sufficiently amusing if the penguin, that pleasing caricature of the professional diplomat, should yet be hailed as . . . the inhabitant of the first world country.'' Her suggestion that the polar regions be administered by a commission operating under the United Nations General Assembly will finally get a hearing this fall. Diplomats at the UN are intent on examining the existing order in Antarctica to determine how to widen international cooperation there. Their opportunity is to realize Antarctica's potential benefit for all nations; their challenge to do so in a manner which avoids jeopardizing the fragile Antarctic environment and peace and diplomacy at the South Pole.

The existing order in Antarctica consists of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, whose original 12 - now 14 - ''consultative'' parties with full decisionmaking status have for over 20 years administered the area in peaceful cooperation despite their divergent views on the territorial status of Antarctica. (Seven claim territory in Antarctica: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The other seven do not recognize any claims: Belgium, Federal Republic of Germany, Japan, Poland, South Africa, USSR, and the US. The US and the USSR maintain a basis for claim, and the claims of Chile, Argentina, and the U.K. overlap.) Drawing on the cooperative spirit sparked by the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, the United States and the Soviet Union joined with 10 other nations in 1959 to demilitarize one-tenth of the earth's surface. In addition to its peace-keeping role, the treaty also called for international scientific collaboration, providing an opportunity to explore Antarctica's vital contributions to world climate formation and its unique frozen record of human impacts on the world environment.

Two recent developments have focused international attention on Antarctica. First, the 14 consultative parties are known to be conducting negotiations to complete, ''as a matter of urgency,'' a legal framework to govern the possibility of minerals exploitation there. The third meeting in this negotiation concluded July 22 in Bonn. Their hasty deliberations have compelled environmentalists worldwide to defend Antarctica's pristine values. They have also fed suspicions among nontreaty parties that the Antarctic Treaty ''club'' is about to alter its role from custodians of Antarctic science and the environment to appropriating Antarctica's mineral wealth. Second, the application of the common heritage of mankind concept to sea-bed minerals beyond national jurisdiction in the 1982 Law of the Sea (LOS) Convention has fueled aspirations to extend this concept to Antarctica.

It is unfortunate that the minerals talks have triggered false assumptions about the imminence of minerals development in Antarctica. While the continent is known to harbor numerous occurrences of minerals, more accessible alternative sources will precede Antarctic minerals development for the foreseeable future. In light of the present world oil glut, Gulf Oil consultant John Garrett has stated, ''I don't think oil prices would support anybody going to Antarctica in this century.''

The consultative parties bear full responsibility, however, for international and public reactions to recent Antarctic events. By deflecting all previous efforts to move Antarctica into the international limelight, and by dithering over the appropriate response to increasing outside interest in Antarctica, they have done nothing to dispel suspicions aroused by the secrecy and exclusivity of Antarctic Treaty activities and meetings. As it is, there is still time to circulate information on the considerable environmental, climatic, scientific, and potentialm economic significance of Antarctica. An accurate reading of these factors will inform the UN debate on Antarctica and will serve the design of any revised legal/political arrangements for the region.

In fairness to the consultative parties and the existing order in Antarctica, the 14 parties agreed in April to a major departure from previous Antarctic Treaty practice. They invited the 12 (now 13) countries which have signed onto the Antarctic Treaty to attend the XII biannual treaty meeting in Canberra in September. (The People's Republic of China acceded in June. The other 12 states are Brazil, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, German Democratic Republic, Italy , the Netherlands, Peru, Papua-New Guinea (succeeding state), Spain, Romania, and Uruguay.) To date these nations have had no role in Antarctic Treaty proceedings even though they acknowledge and support the treaty's principles and obligations. How their participation evolves in Canberra will have a significant impact on the UN debate and on any ''new order'' for Antarctica.

The consultative parties have also established a creditable record in administering the southern polar regions over the last two decades. Yet in today's international climate, the controversial issue of resources ownership poses more difficult questions. The LOS precedent for international resources management remains a tenuous one and one not easily transposed directly to Antarctica in light of the claims and the cohesive resistance of the consultative parties. Before rushing to jettison the achievements of those who had the foresight to remove Antarctica from world strife, UN diplomats should test the adaptability of the existing Antarctic Treaty system to new international interest in Antarctica. The timing for commercial minerals development allows ample opportunity to conduct a realistic assessment of alternative models for wider international cooperation in Antarctica. Only a lack of imagination will leave us wishing the seasoned penguin ''caricature'' were instead the model for accommodation among diplomats.

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