Monday, January 3, 2011

A very unusual international summit

In 1985, representatives from 25 nations joined scientists (and some ASOC folks) for a very unusual international summit - in Antarctica. At the time, several countries not party to the Antarctic Treaty were challenging the existence of the Antarctic club of Treaty members, who could be just a tad arrogant abut their Antarctic prerogatives, if that article is any guide. The Antarctic Treaty nations were seemingly puzzled as to why their system was being questioned. Non-Treaty Parties, for their part, didn't understand how a select few got to decide everything about a continent that technically belonged to no one. At the time, discussions concerning resource extraction in Antarctica were occurring behind closed doors between Treaty signatories. Those countries outside the system questioned whether it was right that a few countries would benefit from Antarctic resources. The summit was an attempt to have an open dialogue.

Scientists at the meeting stressed that science took precedence in Antarctica, and that by implication there was no reason for outside countries to worry that the Treaty system had any nefarious goals in mind - it was unlikely that anyone really would undertake the effort necessary to extract minerals or other resources from Antarctica. While it seems as though the meeting did have the effect of reconciling the sides a bit, it's worth revisiting the issue because similar tensions continue to bubble under the surface. Perhaps they always will. But there are murmurings that reveal that Parties aren't just down there to take ice core samples - countries build new stations to establish a stronger presence, certain policies are resisted because they might hurt commercial interests, etc.

The article hints at how the Treaty's strengths and weaknesses are sometimes the same thing. On the one hand, the Treaty drew together countries in unprecedented international cooperation - but on the other, it implies that a place that many consider to be essentially unowned is owned, and to join the club you have to jump through a few hoops. And developing countries understandably are annoyed by the prospect of developed countries continuing to do whatever they want without asking anyone else. The Treaty ostensibly devotes Antarctica to science and peace and recognizes no territorial claims, but by turning a blind eye to Antarctic claims, allows claimants to continue thinking that certain areas are theirs, even if they know no other Parties recognize the claims.

It's obvious that Parties to the Treaty are not solely acting out of a pure, selfless desire to promote science. There are nationalistic elements to their Antarctic activities. The question remains, however, if the balance will remain tilted towards science, or if the issues under the surface will come to the forefront.

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