Swedes celebrate increased protection for Antarctic

After 13 years of negotiation the 45 signatory states of the Antarctic Treaty have finally agreed to adopt measures to give the icy continent greater protection against environmental disaster.

The member states adopted the treaty in 1959, agreeing to suspend their often-conflicting claims to huge swathes of Antarctica and making it the world’s first demilitarised continent.

They now act as de facto government of the territory and met in
Stockholm this week to discuss new liability rules which will hold polluters legally responsible for any clean up operations their activities necessitate.

The move does little to prevent environmental incidents occurring in the first place, beyond encouraging increased precautions and attention to safety.

But under the new agreement all organisations, be they government sponsored or private enterprise, operating in the Antarctic will be have to have enough insurance cover to pay for the costs of any foreseeable problem.

If offenders do not repair damage done themselves, other agencies will have the legal right to carry out the work then reclaim the costs from those who caused the problem.

The Stockholm Annex, as the agreement will be known, was felt to be all the more urgent with the increase of commercial tourism and ‘bio-prospecting’ – looking for life that may benefit medicine or industry – are on the rise, dramatically increasing human activity on the isolated continent.

Predicted disasters include tourist ships sinking off the coast and spilling fuel and oil into the pristine ocean or land-based operations releasing chemicals and other contaminants.

“The parties’ agreement on liability rules in the event of an environmental emergency is a major success for Antarctic cooperation,” said Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Laila Freivalds.

“Sweden has been a strong driving force in obtaining legally binding liability rules.

“It is particularly gratifying, therefore, that the parties have been able to reach agreement at the Stockholm Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) under Sweden’s leadership.”

The negotiations have been legally complicated, involving a difficult hybrid of international law, national and international tort law, procedural law and insurance law.

The disagreements on sovereignty in Antarctica were also a fly in the ointment and the states have had to negotiate without touching on this sensitive issue.

The Stockholm Annex is based instead on each state taking responsibility for its operators and all states cooperating.

By Sam Bond

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