Australia’s Antarctic role defended | PS News
Shirley Scott* explains why accusations that Australia is acting as a colonial power in Antarctica must be firmly rebuffed.
Although there is no indigenous population, Antarctica has sometimes been referred to as a legacy of colonialism.
However, there is some debate as to whether Australia facilitated or was the object of this colonialism.
Most famously described in the 1980s by then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, the idea of Antarctic colonialism has recently featured in some popular and scholarly writings, usually with negative connotations.
Antarctica was designed as an object of colonialism in two main ways.
The first involves the formulation of territorial claims on the part of seven states, including Australia.
The second is through the operation of the Antarctic Treaty system, in particular its decision-making by a subset of treaty parties, of which Australia is one.
There are significant problems with regarding Australia as a colonial power on the basis of either of these interpretations.
First, the question of territorial title: international law incorporates the intertemporal principle, according to which the determination of title is based on the international law in force at the relevant historical moment.
Yes, Australia asserted territorial rights to the Australian Antarctic Territory (TAA) almost a century ago.
However, the application of the intertemporal principle means that the law of territorial acquisition remains the applicable law for assessing the validity of Australia’s Antarctic title.
This same set of laws has recently been applied by the International Court of Justice to resolve disputes between Indonesia and Malaysia and between Malaysia and Singapore.
There is an oft-repeated myth that Australia’s title to the AAT is weakened by the fact that only a small number of other countries recognize it.
It is, to use Australian slang, a “furphy”. The right of territorial acquisition does not require acts of positive recognition.
Although Australia applied the law of territorial acquisition associated with late 19th century colonialism, Australia subsequently agreed to agree to disagree for the duration of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and to operate as a member of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS).
This brings us to the second line of arguments about why we might consider Australia an Antarctic colonial power.
This reasoning uses “colonial” in the rather vague sense of an inequality of power.
The ATS is sometimes criticized as an exclusive club of states that have arrogated to themselves the right to make all the decisions they want in relation to the continent and to appropriate the spoils (such as minerals).
A refined version of this approach views the inner circle of the ATS – the consultative parties that have voting rights at the annual meetings of the ATS – as the colonial powers with respect to Antarctica.
The problem with this interpretation is that the Consultative Parties have self-imposed regulations and restrictions on their activities in Antarctica.
These include with respect to resources, and have not asserted an overarching right to compel third parties to abide by these rules.
This means that it would be the states not hitherto involved in ATS that are arguably best placed to benefit from the spoils of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.
There is a sense in which it makes sense to say that Australia is involved in an Antarctic colonial project.
The United States, having made no claim of its own, joined by others without title who nevertheless wished to secure access to the continent, took the lead in the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.
Seen in this light, Australia was and remains an object of Antarctic colonialism as opposed to a colonial power.
By agreeing to the terms of the treaty, Australia has effectively restricted the full exercise of its own legitimate power rather than assuming additional power.
Australian officials knew that by agreeing to the treaty, Australia had engaged in an act of self-sacrifice for the greater good, at least for as long as the treaty was in force.
Other parties to the treaty would not be bound to respect Australia’s sovereign rights, but Australia would be bound to respect their position while doing enough to maintain its own legal position – unless Australia went so far as to to relinquish all territorial rights.
Australia should not accept any accusation that it is an Antarctic colonial power.
The importance of the Antarctic continent and the surrounding ice shelves and oceans to the global environment means that there would be very real issues at stake for the entire international community if Antarctica were to be left free for everyone.
Worse still, a competing institution could be created whose participants seek to undermine the levels of environmental protection that ATS members have agreed to.
Australia’s interests require a mature diplomatic line and preparation to refute dangerous claims of colonialism on ice.
*Shirley Scott is Professor of International Law and International Relations in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of NSW Canberra.
This article first appeared on the Australian Outlook website of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.