Antarctic Treaty (1959)


A twelve nation agreement to protect the peaceful status of the Antarctic Continent. It bans the following from Antarctica:

  • establishment of military bases
  • military maneuvers
  • stationing or testing of any type of weapon
  • nuclear explosion
  • radioactive waste disposal.

The Treaty provides each party with the right to full on-site and aerial inspection of all Antarctic installations in order to verify these provisions. On June 23, 1961, the treaty entered into force.


The Antarctic Treaty, the earliest of the post-World War II arms limitation agreements, has significance both in itself and as a precedent. It internationalized and demilitarized the Antarctic Continent and provided for its cooperative exploration and future use. It has been cited as an example of nations exercising foresight and working in concert to prevent conflict before it develops. Based on the premise that to exclude armaments is easier than to eliminate or control them once they have been introduced, the treaty served as a model, in its approach and even provisions, for later "nonarmament" treaties -- the treaties that excluded nuclear weapons from outer space, from Latin America, and from the seabed.

By the 1950s seven nations -- Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, andthe United Kingdom -- claimed sovereignty over areas of Antarctica, on the basis of discovery, exploration, or geographic propinquity. Claims of Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom overlapped. Eight other nations -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Japan, and South Africa -- had engaged in exploration but had put forward no specific claims. The United States did not recognize the claims of other governments and reserved the right to assert claims based on exploration by its citizens. The Soviet Union took a similar position.

Activities in the Antarctic had generally been conducted peacefully and cooperatively. Yet the possibility that exploitable economic resources might be found meant the possibility of future rivalry for their control. Moreover, isolated and uninhabited, the continent might at some time become a potential site for emplacing nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, scientific interests rather than political, economic, or military concerns dominated the expeditions sent to Antarctica after World War II. Fortunately, too, international scientific associations were able to work out arrangements for effective cooperation. In 1956 and 1957, for example, American meteorologists "wintered over" at the Soviet post Mirnyy, while Soviet meteorologists "wintered over" at Little America. These cooperative activities culminated in the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958 (IGY), a joint scientific effort by 12 nations -- Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- to conduct studies of the Earth and its cosmic environment.

In these years the desire to keep the continent demilitarized was general and some diplomatic discussion of the possibility had taken place. On May 3, 1958, the United States proposed to the other 11 nations participating in the IGY that a conference be held, based on the points of agreement that had been reached in informal discussions:

  1. that the legal status quo of the Antarctic Continent remain unchanged;
  2. that scientific cooperation continue;
  3. that the continent be used for peaceful purposes only.

All accepted the U.S. invitation. The Washington Conference on Antarctica met from October 15 to December 1, 1959. No insurmountable conflicts or issues divided the conference, and negotiations culminated in a treaty signed by all 12 nations on December 1, 1959. Approved by the U.S. Senate, U.S. ratification was deposited August 18, 1960, and the treaty entered intoforce on June 23, 1961, when the formal ratifications of all the participating nations had been received.

The treaty provides that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. It specifically prohibits "any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons." Military personnel or equipment, however, may be used for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose. Nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste material in Antarctica are prohibited, subject to certain future international agreements on these subjects. All Contracting Parties entitled to participate in the meetings referred to in Article IX of the treaty have the right to designate observers to carry out inspections in all areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations and equipment, and ships and aircraft at discharge or embarkation points. Each observer has complete freedom of access at any time to any or all areas of Antarctica. Contracting Parties may also carry out aerial inspections. There are provisions for amending the treaty; for referring disputes that cannot be handled by direct talks, mediation, arbitration, or other peaceful means to the International Court of Justice; and for calling a conference in 30 years to review the operation of the treaty if any parties request it.

Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all exercised the right of inspection. The United States conducted inspections in 1971, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1985, and 1989. All American inspections included Soviet facilities. The 1985 inspection concentrated on the Antarctic Peninsula area where the U.S. team inspected stations belonging to the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China, Argentina, Chile, and Poland. The 1989 inspection was conducted in the Ross Sea area, visiting six (only five are named) stations of France, Italy, New Zealand, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Soviet Union, as well as 12 sites of historic and scientific interest. In February 1995, the 10th inspection since inspections began in 1963 was conducted. In a circumnavigation of the South Pole, eight sites were visited to allow teams to observe environmental conditions at research stations. No military activities, armaments, or prohibited nuclear activities were observed, and all scientific programs were in accord with previously published plans. The observed activities at each station were in compliance with the provisions and spirit of the Antarctic Treaty.

Fifteen consultative meetings have been held in accordance with Article IX of the treaty. Numerous recommendations on measures in furtherance of the principles and objectives of the treaty have been adopted, many of which have now entered into force. There are now 24 Contracting Parties entitled to participate in these meetings: the original 12 signatory states plus Brazil, China, Germany, Finland, India, Italy, Republic of Korea, Peru, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay.

Source: Department of State