Seanad Éireann - Volume 174 - 06 November, 2003

Adjournment Matters. - Antarctic Treaty.

  Mr. Ross: This matter, which relates to the need for Ireland to accede to the Antarctic treaty, is familiar to the Minister. When I started exploring this subject, I was amazed that we had not acceded to a treaty now 44 years old. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten me but I could discover no reasons we should not have acceded to a treaty obviously drawn up for the good of mankind. I hope the Minister's reply will state that this was an oversight and that the Government is examining the issue and will come to an early decision to accede to it.

  One of the strange things about this treaty is that Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe which has not acceded to it. Portugal and Luxembourg are the only others. We should ask why this is so. Ireland has strong connections with Antarctica, particularly because of the recent marking of the centennial of Shackleton's expeditions. We are proud of that connection and of what Shackleton, and also Tom Crean, achieved there. We have a strong heritage link with Antarctica which for some reason we are not prepared to acknowledge, pursue or to which we are not prepared to give a commitment.

  A question we should ask is what is the purpose of signing this accession treaty? There are [801]many reasons. The most important, apart from the heritage reason, is the scientific one. This treaty enables all the acceding states to share scientific information garnered as a result of expeditions to Antarctica. Nothing could be wrong with that. It would be to our benefit if we could share and indulge in expeditions and do research into atmospherics, human biology, medicines and vaccines as is being done by other countries. That sort of information would be useful to us and we could contribute our particular expertise in the area.

  We could also benefit from geology and geophysics research going on in the Antarctic which is a unique, untouched area. It is a filing cabinet of the geological history of the world over millenniums. That makes it worth preserving it and it would be worthwhile to share in experiments and gain benefits for the nation and our environment. We are missing out and also being very selfish on this matter.

  We could benefit in other areas. One of the prime areas through which Antarctica could tell us about the modern scientific world is climatology. Other scientific benefits of learning from Antarctica would be in the areas of glaciology and the greenhouse effect. We have excluded ourselves from these benefits by not acceding to the treaty. I cannot understand the negativity. We are losing out on information from which the Government, the people and our scientists could benefit.

  The treaty is completely in line with the United Nations commitment to nuclear free zones. This is a UN and US sponsored treaty. It would be indicative of our commitment to nuclear free zones and to the anti-nuclear movement, with which we are one, if we committed to this treaty. Our accession would also be a general statement about our deep belief in the global environment, an issue pertinent now and since the Kyoto agreement and other agreements since globalisation. We should join other major countries in sharing scientific information and committing ourselves to a belief in the objectives of pursuing a clean, scientific and global environment for the benefit of the people.

  Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Roche): I thank Senator Ross, with whom I have never had a harsh word, for introducing this issue. When the subject crossed my desk at first I thought it concerned his enthusiasm for skiing, but I realise it is based on something higher. It is appropriate that the subject is a matter of public discussion as it has not been debated. The Senator is correct. It is extraordinary that the treaty has existed for over 40 years without there ever being a debate on it in Ireland.

  I will sketch out briefly some of the background material which has informed Ireland's position. The treaty was signed on 1 December 1959 in Washington DC by 12 nations. Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet [802]Union, the United Kingdom and the United States were the signatories with the primary intention of ensuring, in the interest of all mankind, that Antarctica should continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and should not become the scene or object of international discord. The treaty came into force in 1961.

  The treaty specifically sought to prohibit nuclear tests and radioactive waste disposal and to promote international scientific co-operation in Antarctica. No new claims on territorial sovereignty or enlargement of standing claims would be made by contracting parties while the treaty was in force, although previously asserted claims would not be renounced.

  The treaty relates to territory south of the 60º latitude, an area now designated as the Antarctic Treaty Area, ATA. The signing of the treaty was the culmination of co-productive work undertaken by scientists from the 12 nations in question during the period from July 1957 to December 1958, designated by the United Nations as International Geophysical Year.

  Some 15 UN member states have achieved consultative status by subsequently acceding to the treaty and by conducting substantial research in Antarctica. An additional 18 United Nations member states have acceded to the Antarctic Treaty and may attend consultative meetings as observers.

  While the treaty has been in operation since 1961, only an additional 33 UN members have acceded to it since then. Thus, support for the treaty is far from universal. Fewer than one quarter of the member states of the United Nations are state parties to the treaty. At various stages in different fora, the countervailing argument has been made that the Antarctic should be declared part of the common heritage of mankind and be treated in a manner analogous to outer space or the international seabed area. Such a view has found expression in the call for a UN agreement to which all member states would subscribe as the best means of ensuring full accountability for actions undertaken in and concerning Antarctica.

  Ireland is sympathetic to the view that the Antarctic should be seen as part of the common heritage shared universally and this has influenced our approach to date to the question of accession to the treaty. There are other dimensions to this issue. The Government welcomed the adoption, by consensus, of the General Assembly Resolution 57/51 on 22 November 2002 which, inter alia, reaffirmed that the management and use of Antarctica should be conducted in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and of promoting international co-operation for the benefit of mankind as a whole.

  The resolution also welcomed the practice whereby the Antarctic treaty consultative parties regularly provide the UN Secretary General with information on their consultative meetings and [803]their activities in the Antartica. This transparency is to be welcomed and, on an operational level, the decision of the 24th Antarctic treaty consultative meeting, held in St. Petersburg in July in 2001, to establish a cost effective secretariat to the Antarctic treaty was an important one. This secretariat, which is to be based in Buenos Aires, will be of benefit in making the workings of the treaty more transparent.

  Ireland welcomes the generally effective functioning of the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty, known as the Madrid Protocol, which came into force on 14 January 1998 and which provides for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and its dependent and associated ecosystems. The protocol designates Antarctica as a natural resource devoted to peace and science. It also prohibits mineral resource activity other than in the context of scientific research and sets out principles and measures for the planning and conduct of all activities in the Antarctic treaty area.

  While the Government endorses the greatest degree of commonality and transparency concerning Antarctic matters, accession by Ireland to the Antarctic treaty is not envisaged in the period immediately ahead. Senator Ross made some very interesting points about our connections with the Antarctic, through Sir Ernest Shackleton and others, which is something of which we should be mindful. I assure the Senator that the Government will, as a result of this debate, keep our national position under review.

  Mr. Ross: I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, for his full reply and for not sticking too slavishly to his script. There is one point that I do not understand. Government policy appears to be that the Antarctic should be considered as what he calls “the common heritage of mankind” and, therefore, would be treated in a manner analogous to outer space. Is the Government pursuing that policy in any active way? It is not something that the Minister of State could answer immediately, and could not be expected to, but perhaps he could get back to me on it.

  Mr. Roche: It is not just outer space. It is also inner space because there is a view that the seabed is part of the patrimony of mankind. In our approach, we endorse that particular issue. Senator Ross wonders whether our approach is active rather than passive. Unfortunately, I cannot answer him but I am prepared to return to it in correspondence with him.