Who Owns the Antarctic?

Courtesy Reuters

There are disturbing indications that a major international dispute may be about to emerge over an important but little known area of the world's surface: the Antarctic.

The problem raises some of the same issues that have become a source of contention in relation to the international seabed. Who owns the area? Can the region, or individual parts of it, be taken under the control of individual states or groups of states? If it proves to contain valuable economic resources, how should they be exploited and for whose benefit? How should decisions be reached on these questions-in other words who should determine what kind of "regime," if any, should be established to regulate the area? Finally, what should be the nature of such a regime if it were to be established?

In the case of the seabed, these problems caused 15 years of debate and argument, provided the subject matter of a prolonged international conference which lasted for over eight years, and finally produced a comprehensive draft treaty which remains controversial. Though the Law of the Sea Treaty has now been signed by over 130 countries, the United States, Britain and West Germany are significantly absent from the Treaty's parties. Exploitation of the seabed has provoked a major, though little publicized, crisis in North-South relations which could continue to cause difficulties in the West's relations with developing countries for many years to come.

As far as the Antarctic is concerned, the disagreement has only just begun. When the issue was raised at last year's U.N. General Assembly, it may have been only the first shot in a long war which could last for years and which will be fought partly (though not entirely) on a North-South basis. Further discussions are taking place now, and the issue is likely to figure in the forthcoming General Assembly opening in September, where a more serious confrontation could occur.

This article seeks to sketch briefly some of the historical background, to describe the principal sources of

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