Antarctica is the southernmost continent of the world. Being the coldest among the continents Antarctica has no indigenous population or administrative body. The beautiful frozen terrain is dotted with a number of scientific research bases and camps, some stationed only through the summer months. The question of territorial sovereignty started to crop up in the mid twentieth century.
Which countries have official claims in Antarctica?
United Kingdom maintains its official claim over the British Antarctic Territory region since 1908. In 1923 New Zealand laid claim of the Ross Dependency region and France over Adelie Land in 1924. Norway maintains claims over Peter I Island since 1929 and over Queen Maud Land since 1939. Australia officially claimed its territory in 1930 and Chile and Argentina chalked out their Antarctic territories in 1940 and 1942 respectively. The territories claimed by the United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina are overlapping and the official claim is unclear. While UK claims the sector between twenty degrees west and eighty degrees west, Chile claims the land between fifty-three degrees west and ninety degrees west. Furthermore Argentina claims the region between twenty-five degrees west and seventy-four degrees west. The sector between ninety degrees west and 150 degrees west, known as Mary Byrd Land, still remains unclaimed by any country.
Has the Antarctica Treaty System helped?
All of Antarctica is currently governed by a system of treaties known as the Antarctica Treaty System. The main treaty came into force on June 23, 1961. The original countries to have signed the main treaty were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. According to Article 4, the main treaty does not establish any sovereign authority with respect to the territorial claims. Nor does the article endorse or dispute the claims made. It however states that no new territorial claim shall be acknowledged while the treaty is still in force. USA and Russia have reservations against the article and reserve their rights to stake claim over territory in the Antarctic region.
About forty-nine nations of the world have signed one of the treaties included in the Antarctic Treaty System. This means that the nations which have not endorsed the system may stake a claim on the land as terra nullis – a land without native population or governance. The treaty system does not have the formal sanction of the United Nations despite many debates and discussions about the issue. The Antarctic Treaty System, hence, does not decisively settle the issue of territorial claims. Over recent years there has been much speculation with regard to Brazil’s claims over the sector between twenty-eight degrees west and fifty three degrees west as well.
What about other countries undertaking research in Antarctica?
There are over 50 scientific research stations (including summer research stations) in Antarctica with many European, Asian, and American scientists undertaking a variety of research programs in each. Each of these stations, are however, located in one of the eight territories which have been claimed by the seven countries. The issue of the durability of the Antarctic Treaty System has been threatened in many international forums. In some cases the system has been challenged by non-signatory nations. It is widely recommended that the United Nations take up an active role in constructing a management mechanism for stable administration of the region and in the preservation of the natural ecosystem of the continent.
So will we soon need a visa to get to Antarctica?
Currently researchers, tourists, and visitors do not require a visa to get to Antarctica. Most cruises to Antarctica, however, leave from Argentina, Australia, or New Zealand. Cruisers will hence need a visa to be in the boarding country. It is also mandatory that the travelers carry their passports on their trip to Antarctica. But the question of needing a visa for future travel remains unclear. What remains a clear outcome of the recent debates about Antarctica is that an effective solution that has a global endorsement needs to be evolved at the earliest. Such a mechanism will involve a series of agreements for the preservation of the bio-life, the ecosystem, and the restriction of man-made hazards to the environment. The solution may also be one wherein scientists, researchers, and visitors may require a visa to land on a sovereign territory.