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Five Fact Friday - Antarctica

Five Fact Friday - Antarctica

Next week will see the 200th anniversary of what is commonly believed to be the ‘discovery’ of Antarctica by Russian explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen and Mikhail Lazarev.  To celebrate this, and also remind ourselves that there is actually a place that is colder than here right now, here are five frosty law-related facts about the world’s southernmost continent!

1. Dipping their snow in the water

It could be argued, quite convincingly, that Antarctica is ‘lawless’ in many respects.  It has no government of its own to make laws and no state has sovereignty over the continent, although Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK have all laid claim to at least part of it.  Indeed, Argentina and Chile have laid claim to the same part!

2. Fortune favours the cold?

Rather than a single state exercising control over Antarctica, the continent is subject to a number of international treaties, which together are called the Antarctic Treaty System. The most important and encompassing of which is the Antarctic Treaty. 

The Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 signatories states (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Soviet Union, UK and USA) in 1959 and came into effect in 1961.  There are now 54 parties to the Treaty, with 29 having what is known as ‘consultative status’.  This simply means that they are able to vote on matters relating to Antarctica.  The main purpose of the Treaty is to preserve scientific co-operation between countries that operate there and establish freedom of scientific investigation.  It also outlaws military activity on the continent. 

3. Freeze things happen

You may wonder how, if there is no Antarctic laws, it is possible for people to commit crime in Antarctica.  Whilst crime is pretty rare, it is still possible to break the law as, under the Antarctic Treaty, people in Antarctica are subject to the laws of their own country. 

In addition, South Africa, UK and USA have all passed legislation specifically dealing with crimes committed by or (in the case of USA) against its citizens. Australia also has a law pre-dating the Treaty which states that its laws apply specifically to the territory it claims.

Amongst the recorded crimes to have taken place in Antarctica are:

  • a fight between two scientists over a game of chess at a Soviet research station in 1959 which resulted in one attacking the other with an ice axe, perhaps killing him (chess was banned at Soviet stations after this incident);
  • the burning down of an Argentine research station in 1984 by the station’s leader after he was ordered to stay for the winter; and
  • the poisoning of an Australian astrophysicist, Rodney Marks, at an American research station in 2000 which is possibly the only murder to have taken place on the continent.  It was initially thought Marks had died of natural causes.  The true cause of his death was not discovered until his autopsy some six months later, which was delayed because his body could not be removed from the remote station during the winter months.  The case remains unsolved.

Most recently, in 2018, an electrical engineer stabbed a welder multiple time in the chest at a Russian research station.  The pair had never got on well and it is thought that the perpetrator lost his temper after the victim gave away the ending to books that the former had checked out of the library (although others said that the victim had made fun of the perpetrator by saying that he should dance on a dining room table for money)!  The case was dropped by Saint Petersburg prosecutors last year at the request of the victim.

4. A joint enterpr-ice

As well as the Antarctic Treaty, there are thought to be around 200 other agreements of various levels of enforceability that relate to Antarctica. 

These include:

  • the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora which was agreed in 1964 and came into force in 1982 and now has 21 states signed up;
  • the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources which was agreed and came into force in 1982 and now has 35 states signed up; and
  • the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty which was agreed in 1991 and came into force in 1998 and now has 34 states signed up.
5. Everyone’s a winter

Antarctica is an example of a condominium.  This means that it is a political territory in, or over, which multiple sovereign powers formally agree to share equal dominium and exercise their rights jointly without dividing it into national zones. 

It is probably the most successful of this type of territory and, as such, has been mooted as a prototype for any potential future ‘ownership’ of the Moon.

Other current examples of condominiums include:

  • the International Space Station;
  • the Moselle river which has been owned by both Luxembourg and Germany since 1816;
  • parts of the Gulf of Fonseca which are owned by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua (a tridominium); and
  • a part of the Parana River which is shared by Brazil and Paraguay. 

However, the concept is nothing new. For example, between the 7th and 11th centuries, the Byzantines and Arab Caliphate shared Cyprus. 

Numerous similar arrangements have existed across the globe over the years.  Such arrangements have also previously been suggested for disputed territories such as Gibraltar (UK and Spain), Hans Island (Canada and Denmark), Jerusalem (Israel and Palestine), Hong Kong (UK and China) and Northern Ireland (UK and Ireland) as well as a solution as to what to do with Brussels in the event of Belgium being partitioned (Flanders and Wallonia).


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