WHEN the United Nations took up the issue of Antarctica at the end of November for the second year running, participants in the debate nearly lost sight of their objectives by focusing instead on the means to get there.
Unless they begin to identify specific directions for further discussion when the UN considers the subject again next year, the impetus for improving Antarctica's management system may be lost.
No one denies that the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and its associated international agreements have been effective in achieving their purposes of maintaining peace, promoting international cooperation in scientific research, and protecting the Antarctic environment. In raising the issue at the UN, a number of countries not party to this treaty have supported additional objectives for the governance of Antarctica: wider international knowledge about and participation in Antarctica's management system particularlywith respect to benefit-sharing from potential mineral-resources development. These objectives are not incompatible with improvements in the existing management regime for Antarctica.
The 16 countries that hold ''consultative'' or full decisionmaking status under the Antarctic Treaty have resisted efforts to drastically modify the treaty. They also oppose efforts to establish a UN forum in competition with the Antarctic Treaty forum for decisionmaking on Antarctica. On the other hand, they insist that the treaty system is a dynamic one that can evolve to meet the concerns raised by those outside.
During the past 18 months, as a result of outside pressure, they have taken steps to increase the availability and dissemination of information on Antarctica and its management system; they are starting to bring more participants into Antarctic policy deliberations; and they are beginning to consider improvements in the operation of Antarctica's management system, particularly with respect to protection of the Antarctic environment.
At the same time, as noted by the speaker for New Zealand in the UN debate this year, ''The (Antarctic) treaty cannot be taken apart like a Lego set and put back together minus some of its integral parts.'' The balance in the structure of the treaty system protects countries that claim territory in Antarctica (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom) and countries which do not recognize these claims. Participants in the UN debate who believe they can perserve the objectives of the treaty yet dispense with this structure should think again.
There is no doubt that heavy lobbying by the consultative parties contributed to the fizzle in this year's UN debate. But equally culpable are those who stuck to the procedural option of establishing a UN special committee on Antarctica in the face of strong opposition, letting slip through their fingers a more modest alternative that could have helped identify directions for further improvements in the Antarctic Treaty system. Any further UN involvement in this issue will have to be based on specific terms of reference that can command broad-based support and, secondarily, on an agreed means to explore and give effect to improvements in the management system for Antarctica.
Among the subjects that could be examined are the further development of working relationships with broadly based international organizations and greater public accountability. For instance, many of the questions raised by the environmental community worldwide about the effectiveness of the legal regime being negotiated to govern possible minerals development in Antarctica could be put to rest if one could use the basic document before the negotiations to explain what is being done; its confidentiality at this point is largely self-defeating.
Among the opportunities to examine these and other topics over the next year will be an informal meeting of approximately 60 international diplomats, scientists, and private organization representatives in Antarctica in January 1985. Sponsored by the nongovernmental US National Academy of Sciences, this workshop could pick up where the 1984 UN debate left off and home in on widely desired improvements in the Antarctic Treaty system.
At the 13th biennial meeting of the parties to the treaty in October 1985, the consultative parties will be able to take additional steps to respond to the concerns raised by those outside, demonstrating that the treaty system is indeed a dynamic and flexible one.
But the pressure for change within the system should not let up. The other countries party to the treaty that do not hold consultative status have a special responsibility to petition for improvements in the treaty system as they exercise their recently acquired right to take part in treaty system meetings. And countries and organizations outside the treaty system should continue to seek answers to questions about that system and urge greater openness and a public review role in policy decisions affecting Antarctica.
Most important, UN members should seize the opportunity to explore and test specific possibilities inherent in building upon the Antarctic Treaty system to achieve their objectives. If they fail, the alternatives may gain more support.
Lee Kimball is a consultant to the International Institute for Environment and Development and is a public interest adviser to the US government on Antarctic policy issues.