‘Condominum’ Continent is Model of International Diplomacy

Angela Dansby

Imagine a place on earth where there has never been war; where countries around the globe cooperate and collaborate; where politics, rulers and militaries have no place; where nuclear activity and waste is prohibited; where nations are united by a common goal; where they have an open door policy without territorial claims, where peace and science reign …

Unbelievably, it exists: Antarctica. This “condominium” continent is harmoniously governed by 29 nations that are consultative parties to the Antarctic Treaty. These countries conduct substantial research there and therefore, have decision-making rights. Another 25 countries are non-consultative parties without research programs or the right to vote but they can attend consultative meetings.

To keep consultative parties transparent and honest, the treaty gives them the right to learn about and inspect each other’s research activities: “All areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations and equipment within those areas … shall be open at all times to inspection.” So not only is “spying” sanctioned, it is encouraged.

That’s because the Antarctic Treaty calls for freedom of scientific investigation and open exchange of research. It also has clauses to protect the environment, such as no more than 100 people can walk on Antarctica together at the same time. For example, during my Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic voyage there in 2010, our group of 150 explorers was always split in two for continental excursions.

Most importantly, the treaty stipulates that “it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” Wow! Too bad this rule can’t be applied to every continent.

Note this international utopia didn’t always exist. Seven countries – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom – had territorial claims that sometimes overlapped. This once made Antarctica the cause of friction and disputes. The treaty was created to diffuse them, putting any and all territorial claims in abeyance. As long as it’s in force, no country can create, assert, support or deny a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica. Since the treaty was adopted by the United Nations, all member countries must respect the peaceful “condominium” arrangement.

The Antarctic Treaty applies to all ice shelves, archipelagos and islands south of 60° South Latitude, including Balleny Islands, Peter I Island, Scott Island, South Orkney Islands and South Shetland Islands. Each location uses the time zone of the country in line with its longitude or from which travelers came. For instance, my expedition began in Ushuaia, Argentina (the southernmost city in the world) so we stayed in its time zone.

A similar system is in place if you break the law in Antarctica. Under the treaty, anyone accused of a crime while there is subject to punishment by his or her own country.

Take the case of a rogue French woman who once traveled on my ship per the crew. She had the idea that she could pull an Ernest Shackleton and overwinter in Antarctica … by herself with nothing but a tent and bag of bread rolls to supposedly pair with penguin meat. Heck, at least the great explorer Shackleton had proper food and equipment when he got shipwrecked on sea ice with his 27-man crew!

This French woman apparently went on the expedition to try to become her own heroine (and heroin may have been involved, too) and stockpiled bread rolls for a week until she could make her break. One day, when she went on land with a group of explorers – all of which were wearing red coats provided by Lindblad Expeditions to be easily spotted on the black and white landscape for safety reasons – she stayed behind. She had not scanned her identification badge when exiting the ship to make it look like she was still on board. So, the ship pulled out of the harbor without noticing her absence until crew members spotted her red coat on the shore. (Imagine, a French “red coat!” 🙂

Of course, they stopped the ship and sent a small crew in a rubber Zodiac boat to go fetch Frenchie. She resisted so much that the crew had to physically force her onto the boat. Not long after speeding away from land did this woman surprise them again: she jumped into the -9 °C (30 °F) Antarctic Sea and started swimming towards the shore! She was so fixated on staying on the continent that she wasn’t hindered by logic: You die of hypothermia in the Antarctica Sea within about 30 minutes.

Again, the crew picked her up before she turned into a human ice cube and made sure she got back on the ship. Then they locked her in her cabin until they could get her safely back to Ushuaia. While Argentinian authorities escorted her out of their country, the French government had to deal with her otherwise per the Antarctic Treaty. Oh la la!

I can attest first-hand to the coldness of the Antarctic Sea when four friends and I did a “triple dog dare” polar plunge into it from a Zodiac boat. We literally jumped in and out in five seconds and that was more than enough. We dodged hypothermia by running into the ship’s sauna afterwards. There’s a reason whales, seals and penguins have blubber!

By the way, the French woman technically could not have eaten penguins as they are protected by the Antarctic Treaty. It declares the continent a nature reserve, thereby protecting all of its natural resources and native species. This means that they cannot be removed, injured, killed or disrupted by human activity.

The treaty “sets a precedence across the world for many things: international cooperation for peace, appreciation for the importance of science, and respect for native wildlife,” according to Penguins International. “If it can be done there, then hopefully our leaders can use the Antarctic Treaty as a model, and transpose those practices (sometime in the near future) to the rest of the world when dealing with similar issues.”

Bravo! Let’s hope this is not just for the birds.

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Unlike Australia, Antarctica is only a continent, not also a country. That’s because it does not have sovereignty, a government, a political system, an army or a permanent population.