Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Antarctic Treaty obligated the twelve signatory nations, who signed the treaty in 1959, to use the Antarctic continent for peaceful purposes only. Subsequent conventions to the agreement provided protection for native species of flora and fauna.

Summary of Event

Antarctica encompasses fourteen million square kilometers (54,000 square miles), the size of the United States and Europe combined. It is the only continent on Earth without a permanent human population, and it was the last continent to be discovered and explored. Captain James Cook circumnavigated Antarctica in 1773 but did not sight land. Antarctic Treaty (1959) [kw]Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force (June 23, 1961) [kw]Treaty Goes into Force, Antarctic (June 23, 1961) Antarctic Treaty (1959) [g]Antarctica;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]Argentina;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]Australia;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]Belgium;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]Chile;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]France;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]Japan;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]New Zealand;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]Norway;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]South Africa;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]Soviet Union;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]United States;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [g]United Kingdom;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [c]Earth science;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] [c]Environmental issues;June 23, 1961: Antarctic Treaty Goes into Force[06990] Daniels, Paul C. Escudero Guzmán, Julio Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;environmental policy

The discovery of the Antarctic continent, in 1820, was a result of the development of the commercial seal industry in the South Atlantic. In 1820, ships commanded by Captain Thaddeus von Bellinghausen of Russia, Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer of the United States, and Edward Bransfield of Great Britain all sighted the Antarctic mainland. In 1820, Bransfield took formal possession of King George Island, in the Antarctic, for Britain. By the 1830’s, the southern fur seal was nearly extinct, and interest in the Antarctic continent centered on science and exploration.

These and subsequent expeditions resulted in territorial claims by right of discovery. Generally, these claims were in the form of sectors, established along a stretch of coastline and extending in a pie-shaped wedge to the South Pole. The South Pole itself was not reached until December 14, 1911, when a Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen Amundsen, Roald beat the British expedition led Robert F. Scott to the pole by only one month. By the 1950’s, seven nations—Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and Britain—had claimed sectors of the Antarctic continent. There were three problems with establishing these claims: Other countries generally did not recognize them; the United States, which was very active in Antarctic exploration, had not made a public claim of its own; and three of the claims overlapped.

The official position of the U.S. government, as stated in 1924, was that “the discovery of lands unknown to civilization, even when coupled with the formal taking of possession, does not support a valid claim of sovereignty unless the discovery is followed by actual settlement of the discovered country.” The U.S. government reinforced this position by sending Antarctic expeditions into regions claimed by other nations. In 1946 and 1947, forty-seven hundred U.S. servicemen accompanied by fifty-one scientists conducted a large Antarctic operation called “Operation Highjump” Operation Highjump to familiarize military personnel with operations in the polar regions in preparation for military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Arctic. Sixty-eight claim markers were posted on the Antarctic continent during Operation Highjump, some in sectors claimed by other nations. No public announcement of the claims was made at the time, but the markers would permit the United States to challenge claims made by other nations.

The overlapping claims of Argentina, Chile, and Britain provided the potential for conflict, particularly if any resources of value were discovered in the disputed areas. In 1947, 1951, 1953, and 1954, Britain proposed that the conflicting claims be decided in the World Court, but Argentina and Chile opposed this action. Britain took the case to the World Court unilaterally in 1955, but the case was dropped after Argentina and Chile challenged the jurisdiction of the court. In 1952, the Argentine navy fired shots over the heads of a group of British nationals establishing a meteorological station at Hope Bay.

The post-World War II era saw a heightened political interest in the Antarctic. The president of Chile, Gonzalez Videla Videla, Gonzalez , made a highly publicized trip to Antarctica in 1948. In 1950, the Soviet government indicated that it wished to be a party to any Antarctic agreement, and cited the early expedition by von Bellinghausen to support a possible territorial claim. Although earlier expeditions to the Antarctic were generally undertaken in the summer, with base camps abandoned and personnel withdrawn during the winter, by the mid-1950’s bases were constructed for year-round occupation.

In the early 1950’s, scientists began contemplating a year dedicated to intensive international research in the Antarctic. This idea developed into the International Geophysical Year International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18-month period from July, 1957, through December, 1958, during which a worldwide, coordinated program of scientific research in a variety of disciplines aimed at understanding the natural geophysical environment of the earth was conducted. As part of the IGY, scientists from twelve countries set up research stations in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic area. The governments of these nations agreed that, during the IGY, there would be no legal or political disputes over the Antarctic that might hinder the scientific investigations. During the IGY, bases from one nation were to be freely established in the sectors claimed by another nation.

As the IGY drew to a close, diplomats sought a long-term solution to the political problem. Australia was concerned that the stations established by the Soviet Union within the Australian sector might remain after the close of the IGY. During a visit to Australia in March, 1957, U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles Dulles, John Foster [p]Dulles, John Foster;Cold War pacts was asked to look for a long-term solution. Dulles selected Paul C. Daniels, a retired ambassador, to conduct discussions among the interested parties to see if an agreement could be reached.

On May 2, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, having been convinced to abandon efforts to claim parts of the Antarctic for the United States, invited representatives of the twelve nations that had established bases in the Antarctic region during the IGY—Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—to a conference in Washington, D.C. Eisenhower suggested that the participants consider a solution similar to one proposed in 1948 by Julio Escudero Guzmán, a professor of law in Chile, that there be a moratorium on Antarctic sovereignty claims while efforts focused on scientific investigation of the continent. After months of negotiation, they agreed on a treaty on December 1, 1959. It prohibited “any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, as well as the testing of any type of weapon.” The Antarctic Treaty took effect on June 23, 1961, after ratification by all twelve nations.

Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty requires that Antarctica be used only for peaceful purposes, and prohibits weapons testing on the continent. Article 2 establishes the freedom of scientific investigation in the Antarctic. Article 3 provides for the free international exchange of personnel and scientific results. Article 4 states that the treaty does not recognize or establish territorial claims, and provides that no new claims shall be made while the treaty is in force. Article 5 prohibits nuclear explosions or the dispersal of radioactive waste in Antarctica. Article 6 defines the region covered as all land and ice shelves below sixty degrees south latitude, but excludes the high seas from coverage. Article 7 provides that observers from all signatory nations shall have free access for inspection of all stations and equipment in the Antarctic. Other provisions of the treaty require periodic meetings of the signatory nations to exchange information and discuss treaty objectives, including the preservation and conservation of living resources in the Antarctic.


The Antarctic Treaty itself did not provide solutions to the issues of resource development and allocation, but it did provide the framework for international discussion and subsequent agreements on these issues. Consultative meetings, required by the treaty, have been held annually to discuss actions required to achieve the treaty objectives.

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), established to coordinate research in the Antarctic during the IGY, suggested actions for natural resources conservation that have been adopted by the annual consultative meetings. SCAR recommended specific actions for the conservation of native Antarctic species. At the 1964 consultative meeting in Brussels, a proposal known as the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora (1964) was adopted. This document prohibited the killing, capturing, or molesting of any native mammal or bird, except by special permits to be issued for scientific study, capture of specimens for zoos and museums, and as indispensable food for humans or dogs. In addition, the introduction of nonindigenous species to the Antarctic was regulated to prevent the spread of parasites and diseases.

In 1972, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972) was adopted. This agreement protected six species of Antarctic seals, requiring special permits for their capture or killing with the same restrictions as the fauna and flora agreement. It also provided protection for their breeding areas during the breeding season.

In 1972, following a SCAR recommendation, the consultative meeting agreed to limit pollution around Antarctic bases. To comply, the United States undertook a cleanup of its dump site at the McMurdo base. A code of environmental conduct, regulating both station activities and expeditions, was adopted in 1975.

The issues of mineral exploration and fossil fuels in the Antarctic have yet to be resolved. During the 1972-1973 season, the research ship Glomar Challenger Glomar Challenger (ship) detected traces of ethane and methane in the Ross Sea, prompting speculation about the extent and accessibility of Antarctic oil resources. At the 1975 consultative meeting, a majority of participants favored a permanent moratorium on mineral development in Antarctica, an idea opposed by the United States. In 1977, SCAR prepared a report on the impact of mineral exploration and exploitation in the Antarctic, and the 1977 consultative meeting required that any mineral exploitation in the Antarctic not harm the environment.

Although the Antarctic Treaty provides that no new territorial claims be made while it is in force, the treaty does not invalidate earlier territorial claims, nor does it resolve conflicting territorial claims. The president and cabinet of Argentina visited the Marambio Base, on the Antarctic mainland, in August, 1973, and proclaimed it the temporary capital of Argentina. Settlement of the region is a generally accepted requirement to establish such a claim. To reenforce Argentina’s territorial claim, wives and children were permitted to accompany Argentinean soldiers serving at the Esperanza Base on the Trinity Peninsula of Antarctica beginning in 1977. The first baby born on the Antarctic continent was Emilio Marcos Palma, born to the wife of the commander of that base in January, 1978.

The Antarctic Treaty provided an international framework for agreements on conservation and protection of the Antarctic environment. Although it did not settle conflicting territorial claims, the treaty extended the period of international scientific cooperation in the Antarctic begun during the International Geophysical Year, 1957. This Antarctic research resulted in an improved understanding of the global environment, including the discovery of the ozone hole by the British Antarctic Survey in 1985, and its ongoing observation by teams of scientists from around the world that regularly monitor Antarctic conditions. Antarctic Treaty (1959)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Antarctic Treaty Secretariat. A good resource from the office that serves as the liaison and facilitator of communications between parties to the treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auburn, F. M. Antarctic Law and Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. A comprehensive account of the laws governing Antarctic territorial claims, the development of the Antarctic treaty, and the legal aspects of krill harvesting, mineral exploitation, and other Antarctic development. Includes texts of the Antarctic Treaty, subsequent conventions, and U.N. resolutions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, Paul C. “The Antarctic Treaty.” Science and Public Affairs 26 (December, 1970): 11-15. A first-hand account of the history leading up to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, written by the U.S. ambassador to the negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joyner, Christopher C. Governing the Frozen Commons: The Antarctic Regime and Environmental Protection. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. An excellent examination of the Antarctic Treaty System and governance of the Antarctic, or the “frozen commons.” Looks at the far-reaching legal and environmental implications of managing a global commons as vast as the Antarctic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parsons, Sir Anthony. Antarctica: The Next Decade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Describes the accomplishments of the Antarctic Treaty and discusses the conflicting pressures expected from future scientific, conservation, mineral exploitation, and military interest in Antarctica.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. http://www An excellent resource for studies of the Antarctic region. Includes many links.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shapley, Deborah. The Seventh Continent: Antarctica in a Resource Age. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1985. An excellent account of the exploration and territorial claims in Antarctica, the adoption of the Antarctic Treaty, and an assessment of the natural resources of the continent and the potential for their future use. Includes detailed maps and tables of exploration costs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stokke, Olav Schram, and Davor Vidas, eds. Governing the Antarctic: The Effectiveness and Legitimacy of the Antarctic Treaty System. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Explores the Antarctic Treaty System and international cooperation in maintaining the treaty. Topics include fisheries, the environment, tourism, mineral activities, and the role played by nongovernmental organizations in Antarctic policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of State. Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Handbook of the Antarctic Treaty System. 9th ed. 2002. A comprehensive online guide to the Antarctic Treaty System. Available at

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Categories: History