All Articles,  Law

If Only Penguins Knew…

It is clear that our society would hardly function without laws. Although they prevent us from doing really anything we want, they also give us safety, protecting us from injustice, crime, and physical as well as mental harm. Therefore, people can live peacefully with each other. Nevertheless, what about Antarctica – does it have any laws? If yes, why does this land of practically nothing but everlasting ice and snow even need them, if there are no permanent residents, no cities, and no economy to be regulated?

Due to its extremely cold and windy conditions, Antarctica is the only continent without an indigenous human population. Although even ancient Greeks wrote theories about its existence, the land was actually discovered no earlier than in 1820 by Russians, however they did not settle it or claimed it as their own at that time, according to General Knowledge. Since then, Antarctica has become very interesting for other countries as well, even superpowers The United States of America, Russia, and China, because of the vast amount of drinkable water it holds, its strategic position at the south pole and huge amounts of natural resources, especially oil, under its ice.

In my opinion, the last reason indicates what countries actually care about. Having signed the Paris Agreement, for example, and having agreed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals in a few years to save our polluted environment, the reality is that leaders today still fight for fossil fuels, which are doing most harm to our planet. It is indeed true that oil would temporarily bring them a lot of money and boost their economy, but on the other side, it is quietly taking away lives of future generations.

However, according to General Knowledge, in the 19th and 20th century, seven countries (France, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Norway, Australia, Chile and Argentina) have already tried to claim ownership over certain pieces of Antarctica’s land. Because none of those countries’ native people were originally present on the continent, it has been hard to determine whom does the land really belong to. What is more, Chile, United Kingdom and Argentina have been claiming a lot of the same land, which has made the dispute even harder to resolve. Each country has been trying to justify their claim with arguments regarding their past colonizers’ land claims and their nation’s history of expenditures that are supposedly proving they came there first.

Territorial Claims On Antarctica. Source:

Tensions between countries continued to grow, and consequently, there was even a threat of an Antarctic War. In 1947, the USA sent many army ships, planes and soldiers to Antarctica to train under the continent’s extreme conditions and prepare for the battle. Thankfully, the war never happened. To prevent it in the future as well, 12 countries, whose scientists were on the continent at that time, signed The Antarctic Treaty in 1959. One year before that was the International Geophysical Year which marked an end of prohibiting exchange of scientific research between the Cold War’s opponents, the western and eastern countries.

The Treaty was made in interest of all mankind. It declared that Antarctica will always be used for peaceful and scientific purposes only. In accordance with its articles, the continent should never be involved in international disputes. All past territorial claims were paused, and the Treaty prohibits countries from making any new ones, although there was still some unclaimed land. The purpose of this rule is to make sure that Antarctica stays unowned forever and that there would finally be a place on Earth where people would cooperate instead of compete with each other. In this way, Antarctica is one of very few places on the planet that have officially never belonged to any country. In addition, countries are not allowed to perform any military activity, conduct weapon tests there or mine for natural resources, because only in this way, they can preserve the continent’s environment.

According to the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, 42 more countries have signed the Treaty since 1959, which makes a total of 54 parties. The 12 original signatories and 17 others, who are active in conducting research of great importance on the continent, have the right to participate in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. On those summits, important topics regarding Antarctica are discussed and decisions for the future are made. The other 25 countries that signed the Treaty as well are invited to attend the Consultative Meetings but do not participate in the decision-making process.

According to General Knowledge, since 1959, the year when the Antarctic Treaty was made, over fifty-five research stations have been established, even by countries that are not signatories. Scientists from all over the world come there to study the effects of climate change on the planet and to observe the universe in a place that is not light-polluted. Therefore, Antarctica is not completely unpopulated nowadays – scientists and surprisingly even tourists come there temporarily. So, in a case of a crime, which country decides about consequences or a punishment, and according to which laws?

Although Antarctica is not governed by a single country, and no courts are on the continent, it still does not mean that there are no rules. In fact, according to TLDR News Global, laws can be applied if they are in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty System which consists of many smaller agreements between nations and represents a base for a legal system in Antarctica. For a country to enforce laws in their claimed piece of land (which is still not officially theirs), other countries have to recognize it and agree with that. Surprisingly, countries agree quite often, as it usually means that they will receive approval for their claims in return as well, so supporting other countries at such proposals is usually in their interest.

According to TLDR News Global, if your country recognizes another country’s claim of land, then you are subject to this another country’s laws when you are in (not officially) “their” territory in Antarctica. Therefore, if Australia, for example, recognizes New Zealand’s territory, and if you are an Australian citizen, who does something seriously wrong in New Zealand’s piece of Antarctic land, you will be tried in New Zealand’s court and according to New Zealand’s laws.

In other cases, when your country does not approve other nations’ claims, law in Antarctica is a bit more complex. As a citizen of such country, you are considered to be in international waters when in Antarctica. This means that while you are there, you are subject to laws of your home country, except if you harm another country’s citizen. In this case, you can be tried in the harmed citizen’s country.

One country recognizes this, but not that, while another one recognizes this, but not that…. oh, if only penguins knew…