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All Eyes On Antarctica: ATCM XLIV

25 May 2022
By Dr Hanne Nielsen, Bruno Arpi, Dr Jeffrey McGee and Dr Marcus Haward
Royal Navy Ice Patrol Vessel HMS Protector at Galindez Island in the South Atlantic during Antarctic Treaty Inspections.
Source: Royal Navy Media Archive/ Flikr.

The Forty-Fourth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting is taking place in Berlin as a hybrid meeting. For the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs), it provides an opportunity to reassert their commitment to scientific research, international collaboration, and peace in Antarctica.

The Forty-Fourth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM XLIV) is to be held in Berlin, Germany between 23 May and 2 June 2022. The Berlin ATCM will be significant for two reasons. Firstly, ATCM XLIV follows significant disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 ATCM was not held, and the 2021 meeting (ATCM XXLIII) held in Paris, France was wholly online. ATCM XLIV will be the first international Antarctic meeting to engage a hybrid format with the resumption of limited, but still significant, face-to-face attendance. Secondly, ATCM XLIV is being held while two consultative parties, Russia and Ukraine, are engaged in armed conflict. More broadly, it is also the first international meeting with both Russia and Ukraine involved since the conflict began.

The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty is lauded for establishing a framework for collaborative governance, setting aside territorial disputes and securing the continent from military conflict. The Antarctic Treaty’s core foundational principles are a commitment to the peaceful use of the continent and surrounding ocean, non-militarisation of the region, furthering scientific research, and international collaboration. These principles are supported by key norms and rules related to avoidance of conflict and consensus-based decision-making processes. Through the 1991 Environmental Protocol, or “Madrid Protocol,” the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties have committed to maintaining Antarctica as “a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.”

Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings

The ATCM, established through Article IX of the Antarctic Treaty, is held forthe purpose of exchanging information, consulting together on matters of common interest pertaining to Antarctica, and formulating and considering, and recommending to their Governments, measures in furtherance of the principles and objectives of the Treaty …” The first meeting of Antarctic Treaty Parties (ATCM I) was held in Canberra, Australia from 10-14 July 1961. ATCMs were held annually in 1961-1962, and then biannually until 1994, before returning to an annual meeting format since 1994. The annual ATCM meeting is hosted on a rotating basis by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties, based on their alphabetical order in English. There are currently 54 Antarctic Treaty Parties and 29 Consultative Parties. The Committee on Environmental Protection, established under the 1991 Environmental Protocol, meets concurrently to provide advice, and formulate recommendations to the ATCM on various environmental matters.  In 2003, the Antarctic Treaty Parties established the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, located in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to assist the ATCM in performing its administrative functions.

As the major deliberative forum for the governance of Antarctica, the ATCM remains one of the core elements of the Antarctic Treaty System. The Meeting agenda is divided into two working groups: Working Group 1 addresses “Policy, Legal and Institutional Issues,” such as monitoring and compliance provisions of the Antarctic Treaty, while Working Group 2 covers “Operations, Science and Tourism,” including the impacts of climate change in the region. The ATCM meeting agenda is supported by the submission of various Working Papers (WPs), Background Papers (BPs) and Information Papers (IPs), by consultative parties and observer organisations. BPs and IPs are also received from formal invited experts and non-consultative parties, and Secretariat Papers (SP) from the secretariat. The formal outcomes from the ATCM  include “Measures” – which are decisions intended to be legally binding; “Decisions” – which  address internal organisational matters, and “Resolutions” which are non-binding statements adopted by the meeting. Prior to 1995, these outputs were all termed ‘Recommendations’.

 The significance of ATCM XLIV

ATCM XLIV in Berlin is significant due to its format and the wider political context in which it will occur. It presents an opportunity for ATCPs to meet face-to-face in formal sessions, and in informal settings, to renew diplomatic relations, although the usual social program around the meeting has been curtailed.

However, the meeting is likely to face a number of challenges, including the potential for further disruption due to COVID-19. The hybrid format will likely mitigate this, while allowing for the participation of a greater range of experts and delivering a lower carbon footprint. Managing the participation of Russia and Ukraine is also important, in the context of the armed conflict occurring between these states. The ATCM has successfully managed difficult political issues involving the Antarctic Treaty Parties in the past. In the 1980s, it faced the challenge of the participation of South Africa during the apartheid period, and the consequences of the armed conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982 – although the ATCM did not occur whilst that conflict was ongoing. It is significant that the ATCM is proceeding, with the parties demonstrating commitment to Antarctica’s future. While the Ukraine-Russia armed conflict will not go unremarked upon, two pillars of the Antarctic Treaty System, peace and science, will be particularly important to foreground in this year’s meeting context.

The Antarctic Treaty and the ATCM have been remarkably resilient over the last six decades, but this cannot be taken for granted. There are some harbingers that suggest significant political stresses in the system. The recent blocking of consensus by Russia and China during meetings of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources may be an indicator of a broader hardening attitude within the Antarctic Treaty System. As the Antarctic Treaty, and the ATCM, enters its seventh decade it is an important opportunity for parties to recommit to the values of the treaty and work to build consensus after a period of increasing stress, exacerbated by the need for an online ATCM with a reduced agenda in 2021. ATCM XLIV therefore provides an opportunity for the ATCPs to reassert their commitment to key norms and principles, focusing on commitments to peaceful use, scientific research, and international collaboration in Antarctica. The Australian delegation, along with other like-minded states, will no doubt be heavily focused on this outcome.

Dr Hanne Nielsen is a Lecturer in Antarctic Law and Governance at the the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at The University of Tasmania. Her research focusses on human interactions with Antarctica, including polar tourism; Antarctica in the media; and Antarctica as a workplace.

Bruno Arpi is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. He holds a Master of Law (LL.M) degree from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and graduated as a Lawyer (Abogado) at the Universidad Nacional de Rosario (Argentina) where he has been teaching Public International Law since 2017.

Dr Jeffrey McGee is an Associate Professor at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania. His work focusses on international law and governance issues relating to Antarctica, Oceans and Climate Change.

Dr Marcus Haward is Professor of Ocean and Antarctic Governance, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at The University of Tasmania.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be re-published with attribution.