UN takes a first step toward putting Antarctica under its wing

Like a glacier moving down a valley, Antarctica is slowly coming under United Nations scrutiny and regulation. Oddly, the United States and the Soviet Union stand shoulder to shoulder against this issue. Both are determined to keep the UN out of the huge, mineral-rich piece of real estate which they consider to be ''their private hunting ground,'' as one leading third-world diplomat put it.

Since 1959 the world's coldest, windiest continent has been administered by the 12 signatories of the Antarctica Treaty - Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Britain, Norway, the US, USSR, South Africa, Japan, France, and Belgium. The ''club'' has since admitted Poland, West Germany, India, and Brazil.

Now the UN has adopted a resolution by consensus which ''requests the Secretary-General to prepare a comprehensive, factual, and objective study of all aspects of the Antarctic Treaty and other relevant factors.''

One UN diplomat commented: ''This move is innocuous enough, but it must be seen as a first step toward major UN involvement in Antarctica similar to its previous involvement in regulating the seabed,.''

The continent's legal status is murky, but experts believe it is rich in oil, natural gas, platinum, nickel, copper, gold, coal, and possibly uranium.

The Antarctic Treaty ''club'' members are coming under increasing criticism because their meetings are held in secret. Their ''club'' provides little information about its activities and decisions regarding Antarctica.

Although many diplomats here agree with US and Soviet diplomats on the positive side of the ''club'' - it has prohibited nuclear testing on and around the continent - they question a system that gives nations the power of decision and leaves others with no say regarding the exploitation of Antarctica's wealth. They want the ''club'' to be made accountable to the world community. They also ask whether the provisions of the Law of the Sea convention regarding exploitation of oil and gas under the continental shelf are applicable in Antarctica.

''UN involvement in Antarctic issues has just begun, and will depend on the willingness of the (treaty members) to modify, democratize, soften its procedures, and accommodate the interests of others. . . .'' says a Western ambassador.

With the US and the Soviets opposed to any concession, Australia, New Zealand , Chile, and Norway form the liberal wing. The others simply play it safe.

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