30 October 2002


Press Release

Fifty-seventh General Assembly

First Committee

24th Meeting (AM)


Focus on Benefits of 1959 Treaty, Environmental Issues

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty had successfully guaranteed that the vast continent remained dedicated to peace, international cooperation, and scientific research, the First Committee was told this morning, during a general debate on the question of Antarctica.

That landmark Treaty provides for, among other things, the demilitarization of Antarctica, the prohibition of nuclear explosions and disposal of nuclear wastes, the freedom of scientific research, and the free exchange of scientific information.  In the 40 years since its entry into force, an additional 33 States had joined the original 12 signatories and become parties to the Treaty, bringing to 45 the total number of States parties.  Of those, 27 had been accorded Consultative Party status by virtue of their substantial scientific research activity in Antarctica.

In today’s debate, the Executive Secretary of the twenty-fifth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, Ryszard Sarkowicz (Poland), speaking on behalf of the States parties, emphasized the parties’ strong commitment to protecting the region’s environment.  Work continued on establishing rules relating to liability for damage arising from activities taking place in the Antarctic Treaty area and covered by the Environmental Protocol.  Other efforts focused on the development of guidelines for shipping in the Treaty area.  Increasing tourism and a trend towards larger passenger vessels also necessitated guidelines designed to improve the safety and environmental protection of those vessels.

Noting that debates on Antarctica had questioned the exclusivity of the Treaty system, Zainuddin Yahya (Malaysia) said he was pleased nevertheless that there was now greater transparency and accountability with respect to the activities of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties.  Referring to the 1998 Madrid Protocol, which designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, he urged its parties to report on national measures towards implementation.  He advocated a strict Treaty regime, which included clear liability for environmental damage.

Munshi Faiz Ahmad (Bangladesh) said that, although he came from a developed country far removed from Antarctica, the world’s future was closely tied to the findings of the various scientific research projects in that region.  Turning to ozone depletion, he expressed concern over the fact that, in 2000, the Antarctic spring ozone hole had reached a recorded area of almost 30 million square kilometres.  That was a disturbing development with dangerous consequences for humanity.

For its discussion this morning, the Committee had before it the report of the Secretary-General (document A/57/346), which outlines the activities of the Antarctic Treaty system and international bodies active within that system, and summarizes recent findings on the Antarctic environment.

As of July 2001, the Antarctic Treaty, which was adopted in 1959 and entered into force in 1961, had 45 States parties, of which 27 were Consultative Parties.  Estonia acceded to the Treaty on 24 March 1999.

The primary purpose of the Treaty is to ensure, 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.  To that end, the Treaty prohibits any measures of a military nature, and has frozen the position of States with regard to territorial sovereignty.

The Madrid Protocol entered into force on 14 January 1998.  As of July 2001, there were 29 Parties to the Protocol, including all Consultative Parties and two non-Consultative Parties, Greece and Ukraine, the latter having adhered during the period under review.  The main purpose of the Protocol is to provide for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems.  To that end, the Protocol designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science, prohibits mineral resource activities other than scientific research, and sets principles and measures for the planning and conduct of all activities in the Antarctic Treaty area.

Agreements and groups operating within the Antarctic Treaty system are:  the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals; the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources; the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR); and the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programmes (COMNAP).

The report describes scientific activities carried out by SCAR's working groups.  Those activities involve exploring the following issues:  biology; geodesy and geographic information; geosciences; glaciology; human biology and medicine; physics and chemistry of the atmosphere; and solar-terrestrial and astrophysical research.

International organizations acting within the system include:  the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition; the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators; the International Hydrographic Organization; the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission; the International Maritime Organization; the World Conservation Union; the United Nations Environment Programme; and the World Meteorological Organization.

According to the report, among the many activities carried out by those organizations are:  the collection of data to better understand ozone depletion; the production of an international Antarctic weather forecasting handbook; steps to avert and control marine pollution; and efforts to prevent the introduction of alien organisms.

Summarizing recent developments pertaining to the Antarctic environment, the report cites documented changes in Antarctica.  Those changes include:  increase of surface temperature by 3.9 degrees Celsius, on average, in winter, and

2.8 degrees Celsius in summer; increase in precipitation by 50 millimetres a year; and displacement of cyclone trajectories southward.  According to the report, calculations show that the mass of Antarctic glaciation will increase.  However, it also notes that, during the past decade, glacier degradation has occurred in the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Cape Roberts project, established to investigate the history of geologic uplift of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and the past 100 million years of climate history, had been completed.  In addition, as part of the international Antarctic Pack Ice Seals programme, seals were captured in an area of more than 1 million square kilometers.  Dive recorders were attached to them to study their movements and diving behaviour.  COMNAP/SCAR published an environmental monitoring handbook and CD-ROM, providing techniques for physical and chemical monitoring of station environmental impacts.

COMNAP undertook a study of environmental emergencies arising from activities in Antarctica.  Fuel spills were the most common incidents, with the greatest potential to cause environmental impacts.  However, most reported spills had been small and confined to a station or base or adjoining waters.  According to the report, since 1991, 11 accidents had occurred:  six transport incidents; one oil leakage; three medical evacuations; and one collision with a humpback whale.

The report also examines waste disposal and management.  For example, it notes that an inspection carried out by the United States indicated that some stations did not have adequate sewage treatment systems.  The Russian Federation, for its part, implemented a number of preventive measures with regard to the issue and had carried out clean-up operations in its stations.  Increased amounts of marine debris are also noted.

Changes in ozone over Antarctica are predicted to be accompanied by an increase of 130 per cent in skin damaging radiation, if other influences, e.g. clouds, remained constant.  However, worldwide compliance with current international agreements, which call for the reduction of emissions of ozone-depleting substances, will gradually improve the ozone layer over the next several decades.

With respect to diseases affecting Antarctic wildlife, the intersessional working group set up at the 23rd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting completed its study on the topic.  That study assessed the risk of human activities introducing diseases to Antarctica to be very low.  However, the mortality of seabirds and toothfish, because of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, remains a problem.  In addition, the reported capture and killing of seals increased significantly.

According to the report, tourism to Antarctica continued to increase.  From 1992 to 2001, there had been an 82 per cent increase in the number of shipborne tourists.  Additionally, the 1999 to 2000 season recorded the highest number of shipborne tourists ever, 14,402.

In its concluding remarks, the report states that the Antarctic Treaty system has continued to provide a unique example of international cooperation on the basis of international agreements.  With the entry into force of the Madrid Protocol, human activities in Antarctica are being regulated to protect the environment and its dependent and associated ecosystems.  The report also states that the recent consensus on the establishment of an Antarctic Treaty secretariat

will provide the Treaty with a central repository of information, in particular with regard to its meetings and activities.

There are, however, some issues of concern and possible challenges that will have to be addressed, the report concludes.  For example, since 1991 no agreement has been reached on any annexes to the Madrid Protocol concerning liability for environmental damage.  In addition, more enforcement and cooperation are required from all States to halt the illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing for toothfish in the Southern Ocean.  Finally, efforts are still needed to prevent and mitigate the effects of tourism, and climate change and ozone depletion remain major threats to the Antarctic region.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Friday, 1 November, to consider a draft resolution on the question of Antarctica.

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For information media. Not an official record.