WASHINGTON — ONE of the world's least-known and most-successful East-West treaties was negotiated and ratified in the middle of the cold war. The Antarctic Treaty reserved the continent for ``peaceful purposes'' and ``scientific investigation.''
In 1961, 12 nations gathered here in Washington to sign the treaty. After the broad achievements of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, the scientific community wanted to continue its research without being impeded by territorial claims previously made by seven of the treaty signatories.
Some of the claims overlap. They are based on a number of different legal grounds, including having been the first nation to see a particular piece of land, to visit specific tracts, or to establish bases (see map).
The treaty allowed scientific research to continue even though the claims had not been resolved.
``One of the reasons that the Antarctic Treaty has remained a dynamic and vital legal document is that it recognized that certain kinds of conflicts - territorial and ideological - cannot be resolved finally,'' says R. Tucker Scully, director of the United States State Department's Office of Oceans Affairs. The scientists organizing the Geophysical Year worked out some practical approaches to dealing with sovereignty claims, he says.
The initial question for the US, Mr. Scully says, was `` `How do we keep the Soviets out of this place?' Then, after a long study, the US [decided] ... that the effort to exclude the Soviets would in fact undercut the basis for continuing science activities.''
Eventually a long-term policy emerged: Buttressed by concurrence between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the settlement of existing claims was pushed off into the future. While seven nations - Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and Britain - claimed parts of Antarctica, the US and Soviet Union refrained. But both held out the right to make future claims. This has had the effect of dampening smaller nations' enthusiasm for trying to bolster their claims, experts say.
The treaty operates by a system of consensus: ``It is a hard way to do business, very time-consuming,'' Scully says. ``But it allows an informal style of negotiation where countries can take the position, `If you don't ask me to say yes, I won't say no.' ''
In addition to resolving disputes efficiently, the Antarctic Treaty has become a model for disarmament agreements, observers say. It bans nuclear explosions and was the first treaty to propose a program of mutual inspections.
``Because no one was quite sure what was going to happen in the Antarctic, they put in this wonderful provision for open, on-site, unannounced inspections,'' says Raymond Arnaudo, director of the US State Department's Division of Polar Affairs. ``If you talk to old arms-control hands, they will tell you this always served as the simplest of models for arms-control issues.''
At first the on-site inspections assessed mainly whether any armaments were stored on bases. Things have changed: ``Inspections have now become a vehicle for checking on environmental-quality issues,'' Mr. Arnaudo says during an interview. ``We still ask if they have any weapons,'' he says, ``but it is always followed with a smile and a laugh, and someone pulls out a flare gun.''
Diplomats handling the Antarctic Treaty say they are working toward a goal that lies beyond Antarctica. ``It is a model for how things could work elsewhere,'' Arnaudo says. ``We work for creative solutions to issues that normally become quite territorial.''
During the Falklands/Malvinas crisis, for example, Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings continued without devolving into polemics - an especially remarkable result considering that the Falklands/Malvinas are almost on the boundary of the Antarctic.
The ticket to full participation in decisionmaking within the treaty is the pursuit of ``substantial'' scientific research on the continent. ``Originally this meant a scientific base,'' Scully says. ``Now a country just has to have an important scientific program, as the Dutch do.''
Dangerous-weather and safety issues have made it essential for nations to cooperate in Antarctica. ``We have a strong relationship with the New Zealand, British, and Italian programs,'' says Cornelius Sullivan, director of the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs. ``There is real sharing to mutual benefit.''
This approach goes back a long way. ``Sometimes people forget that the US has been an early and consistent proponent of the internationalization of the Antarctic,'' says Ethan Berkowitz, the US Antarctic Conservation Act enforcement officer.
But not everyone is happy with the status quo. Despite US agreement to abide by the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection added to the Antarctic Treaty, some advocacy groups would like to have a separate enforcement regime that is outside of regular treaty channels.
``Scientists are good stewards of the environment,'' says Scott Hajost, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. ``But you have to have some consideration about the impact of logistics [support] activities.''
Greenpeace proposes an ``international inspectorate'' that would provide oversight on environmental compliance. Susan Sabella, the organization's Antarctica specialist, worries that there is a ``bit of turning a blind eye'' during mutual inspections. ``It's hard to rat on `brother' stations down there knowing that they can come back and do the same thing,'' Ms. Sabella says. ``An inspectorate would at least be another set of eyes.''
Yet the governing regime in the Antarctic is applauded by the diplomats who run it. ``Under the Antarctic Treaty - unlike some other international agreements - practical and binding measures are actually developed and implemented,'' Scully says.