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The Falklands are small fry compared to Antarctica. Antarctica hides vast mineral deposits under its icy carpet and its continental shelf. Emotional and human interest keeps the Falklands in the news, while far more important Antarctica is quietly forgotten in the UK. This is strange, as we have the oldest claim on its territory. At present, Antarctica belongs to nobody, even though seven countries claim parts of it. The claims of Britain, Chile and Argentina overlap and include the most hospitable part of it: the Antarctic Peninsula.
Both Argentina and Chile have been increasing their military and civilian presence in the Antarctic Peninsula for many years; while Britain has been decreasing its presence and has been cutting back on the Royal Navy. And yet, militarising Antarctica is expressly forbidden by Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty 1959, of which Argentina is a co-signatory. President Cristina de Kirchner, who is currently accusing the UK of militarising the Falklands, stated in July 2008 that she was keen on militarising Antarctica. Two months ago the Argentinian Air Force bought Russian helicopters for use in Antarctica.
Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, all territorial claims remain frozen. The whole of Antarctica is to be used as a continent for scientific research. In the light of the increasing scramble for fossil fuels and minerals this position is untenable in the medium to long term. At some point the seven claimants are bound to reach some sort of agreement. Both Argentina and Chile are trying to manipulate the future by encouraging babies to be born at their bases: establishing a native population would help their claim under international law. Children in Chile and Argentina are taught in school that they own Antarctica. Chilean and Argentinian maps show the Antarctic Peninsula as their territory.
The legal status of Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty. It is a relic of a bygone era. It muses about how “substantial contributions to scientific knowledge [can result from] international cooperation in scientific investigation”; and how the whole of mankind is going to benefit from all of this. The Protocol on Environment Protection (1991) establishes Antarctica as a wilderness where commercial mining is prohibited for the next fifty years. While I do not dispute that some parts should be kept for environmental reasons, keeping a continent which is 55 times the size of the UK is excessive. I can see no justification to restrict so vast a territory to the sole enjoyment of a handful of privileged scientists and about 50,000 tourists annually. Neither do I see how the whole of mankind is served by closing the door to Antarctic exploitation.
Occasionally diplomats try to reach some sort of agreement about the exploitation of Antarctica. Sadly a free market and workable system does not seem to be at the top of their mind. In 1988 a Convention to the Treaty attempted to allow for mining, but is was never ratified. It would have established an eye-wateringly complicated bureaucracy and a quasi-communist proceeds distribution system similar to the unworkable International Seabed Authority. Until a new Treaty is signed, extracting Antarctica’s mineral treasure remains unlawful.
Britain has the oldest claim on Antarctica and must stand by it and defend it. Exposing Argentina’s breach of international law should be Government Policy.