Antarctica as a Continent of Science and Peace: 1950s and 1960s

The Antarctic Treaty (cited hereafter as the Treaty), with a preamble and 14 articles, was signed on 1 December 1959 by the representatives of the 12 IGY participating countries – Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, FranceJapan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States of America, and USSR. It took effect on 23 June 1961. The preamble to the Treaty underlines that, ''it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.'' Article I of the Treaty prohibits all activities of a military nature, such as establishment of military bases and fortifications, carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any weapons. Article V prohibits any nuclear explosion in Antarctica and the disposal of radioactive waste material.

Article VII provides for wide rights of inspection to all areas of Antarctica by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs). According to Article VI, the Treaty's provisions apply to the area south of 601 South latitude. At the same time, however, Article VI disavows any incursion upon high seas rights as recognized by international law. The Treaty in no way attempts to define explicitly just which maritime areas of the Southern Ocean below 601 South latitude are, or should be, considered high seas. The primary reason for this ambiguity is that five of the seven who claim sovereignty over portions of the Antarctic continent demarcate their claims in such a manner so as to include areas of the Southern Ocean.

The innovative containment of sovereignty positions through Article IV of the Treaty is the major reality of Antarctic geopolitics. The article explicitly declares that ''nothing contained in the present Treaty shall be interpreted as: a renunciation by any contracting party of previously asserted right or claims to territorial sovereignty.'' The Antarctic Treaty in general and Article IV in particular have escaped a critical scrutiny with regard to the manner in which they 'rewarded' colonial occupation and annexation. The legal 'freezing' of territorial claims for the duration of the Treaty (no specific termination date is being mentioned) is therefore much more than a carefully crafted diplomatic solution to the thorny issue of claimant and nonclaimant states; it protects and promotes a particular vision of the continent anchored in the colonial past.

The Antarctic Treaty parties (as of June 2008, there are 46 parties to the Treaty, of which 28 are the consultative parties), including the original members of the Antarctic Treaty, meet annually (previously it was biennially) in order to discuss recommendations for the Antarctic continent or the implementation of existing agreements. Although a good deal has been said and written of late about the authority, legitimacy, and effectiveness (legal and political) of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), much less critical attention has been paid to the fact that beyond the apparent egalitarian framework of the Treaty, considerable asymmetries of knowledge–power nexus continue to persist. The structure of the ATS continues to 'reward' those consultative parties that have demonstrated 'substantial scientific research' with full voting rights. In contrast to the obligation of the new acceding states to carry out 'substantial scientific research activity' in Antarctica, understood to mean the establishment of scientific stations or the dispatch of scientific expeditions (Article IX), the original signatories are not obliged to do so.

The power–knowledge nexus is perhaps most clearly witnessed in the annual meetings of the ATCPs, which are overwhelmingly dominated by English speaking parties with established histories and geographies of engagement with Antarctica. This is consolidated by the role played by specialist agencies/bodies such as Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), the Committee on Environmental Protection, and the Scientific Committee of Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which further reinforces the connection between scientific knowledge production and political influence and decision making.

As pointed out by some scholars, the role of science and the production of scientific knowledge have been pivotal in the colonization of Antarctica. Science continues to be the key currency of geopolitical influence in the southern polar region, also deployed for the purposes of the assertion as well as denial of territorial claims. In the light of burgeoning research in cultural histories of science, a far more serious and systematic research is needed to investigate how various scientific discourses, and the practices flowing from them, contribute to the consolidation and exercise of geopolitical power in the Antarctic.

During the 1950s and 1960s, it became commonplace for political leaders and scientists alike to frequently describe the Antarctic as either a 'laboratory of science' or a 'continent of peace and science'. Such a representation of the Antarctic was driven in part by the attempt to secure further funding for research and/or to preserve Antarctica's status as a zone of peace. Furthermore, the deployment of the term 'laboratory' helped create a specific place as a spectacle or an experiment, around which a consensus or consent among the participants of the ATS could possibly be generated. The conventions and procedures of the Antarctic Treaty parties too have played an important role in establishing controls on actions within that space and in establishing criteria for what qualified as proper scientific knowledge or substantial scientific research.