Antarctic Polar Regions | Protecting Antarctica

Protection of the environment scores a great victory
The signature of the Madrid Protocol

At the meeting in Vigna del Mar (November-December 1990), which followed on from the failure recorded in Paris, the delegations analysed the proposals made by member states since the failure. There were those in the group of four (Australia, Belgium, France, Italy) who were proposing to implement a genuine international organisation whose job would be to monitor compliance of the rules designed to protect the environment; these rules banned mineral exploitation, subjected all human activity taking place down there to a prior environment impact study and placed discussions of the idea of promoting a world nature reserve back on the table.

The proposals of the United States and Great Britain were aimed at adopting a minimum solution for environmental problems while retaining the Wellington provisions. As for the wording put forward by the New Zealanders, this was a compromise between the two. A few months later, during the second session of negotiations that took place in Madrid (April 1991), Japan announced to general surprise that it was no longer opposed to the principle of banning the exploitation of mineral resources, and Germany lined up alongside the environmentalist point of view; The United States and the United Kingdom, stayed with their original position. Nevertheless, the wording was finalised so that it could be signed on 23rd June of the same year, the date commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the 1959 Atlantic Treaty coming into effect. After a number of circuitous events that diplomats are so good at (with the United States making new demands a few days before the signing) and many procedures being put in motion in Washington - by Belgium in particular - the Protocol for the Antarctic Treaty relating to the protection of the Antarctic environment was signed in Madrid on 4 October 1991 by 23 of the 26 consultative parties (with India, Japan and South Korea abstaining). What does the famous document contain? The most significant decision relates to the ban on all activity other than scientific research relating to the Antarctic's mineral resources ("This is not a moratorium, as it has sometimes been presented," wrote Philippe Gautier in his report on Belgium and the Antarctic, "but a ban that has not had time conditions placed on it. Of course, according to article 25, after 50 years, this article can be modified to terms that are less strict than unanimity, but adopting such a modification assumes that the majority of the contracting parties are in favour of it, including the 3/4 of the 26 current consultative parties").

The Protocol also creates an Environment Committee that provides opinions and formulates recommendations about the application or strengthening of the articles of the Protocol; it establishes basic principles relating to the protection of the environment; it also requires prior environmental impact studies for all human activity in Antarctica; it accepts the defence of the idea of a joint jurisdiction applied to the Southern Ocean included in the zone covered by the Treaty. Despite certain shortcomings, such as the absence of a real system of responsibility and notwithstanding the fact that it can be reviewed after a period of 50 years, the Madrid Protocol was received favourably, both by the international community which congratulated itself on the fact that a text had finally met the wish expressed by the United Nations and the European Parliament, as well as by environmental protection organisations.