The successful cooperation of many nations during the IGY of 1957-1958 brought a new spirit to the world scientific community and the desire for a more permanent special agreement between nations engaged in scientific research in Antarctica. As a result, in 1958 the United States initiated the idea of a conference dedicated to the establishment of an Antarctic treaty. After several preparatory talks and negotiations, the conference materialized and on December 1, 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by the representatives of 12 nations. It is truly a remarkable document, unique among international agreements.
It formalized and guaranteed the kind of free access and research rights that prevailed so successfully during the IGY, and established a legal framework for all countries to work together for the common cause of scientific research and exchange of ideas. The Treaty does not recognize, dispute, or establish territorial claims, and no new claims may be asserted.
It further states that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only, thus prohibiting activities of a military nature, and subjecting all areas and stations to on-site inspection. The Treaty also prohibits nuclear explosions and the dumping of nuclear waste. The Treaty also provides for an exchange of information, interchange of scientific personnel, preservation of historic sites, protection of native birds, animals, and plant life, adoption of specially protected areas and sites of special scientific interest, exchange of information on marine and mineral resources and sealing, and guidelines for tourist and private expeditions.
Among the concerns of Treaty nations in have been the potential problems that might arise through any future exploitation of fish and mineral resources. As a result, by 1980 Treaty members had established a commission with the responsibility of regulating fishing activity to ensure that protection and harvesting are based on sound scientific principles. The commission created a scientific committee to provide for maintenance of resource populations at a sustained level and ecological balance between harvested, dependent, and related species.
Antarctic Treaty nations have met on several occasions for the purpose of anticipating the problems of exploitation, and to assume the responsibility for the protection of the environment and wise use of the resources. The Treaty nations agreed to refrain from conducting any exploration or exploitation, and that exploitation will not be permitted unless satisfactory measures are first established to protect the unique Antarctic environment.
One of the finest testimonials to the spirit of international cooperation generated during the IGY and perpetuated by the Antarctic Treaty has been the abiding cooperative research by scientists, even those whose home nations were involved in strong tensions and military confrontations. During the Cuban missile crisis and the fighting in Vietnam and in the Falkland Islands, all those in the Antarctic scientific community continued an unbroken and peaceful exchange of information. Under the Antarctic Treaty, activities on the continent have truly proclaimed this “a continent of peace.”