Who really owns Antarctica?

I have often argued with extreme libertarians (and anarchists) that the existence of property rights first requires the existence of a government with a monopoly on coercive force (ie. government requires the largest armed force).  If such an entity didn’t exist, then the largest armed force would simply take control and become the government.  Many voices in these debates suggested that I need only look to international treaties to show how cooperative we can be without the need for world police.

Putting aside the very obvious point that the US is the current world police, with their military budget making up 43% of the world total military spend, and that their international military presence often conflicts with international treaties, we can examine whether the extreme libertarian views are vindicated by one of the shining examples of international cooperation – Antarctica.

Back in 1959, the twelve countries active in the Antarctic signed the Antarctic Treaty (implemented in 1961), which led to further treaties and conventions to manage activities and resource use (especially fisheries) in the whole Antarctic region south of 60% latitude (collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System).  With the shadow of the second world war still looming large, the top priority of the original treaty was to ensure that the area remained conflict-free by outlawing a military presence – prescribed in Article I of the treaty.  Other peace-inspired provisions include Article V, prohibiting nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive material.  Who knew that the dominant ideologies of 1960s youth originated in Antarctica?

Since that time the Montreal Protocol was adopted as part of the Antarctic Treaty System with the explicit intention of preserving the Antarctic as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.  Critically, Article 7 of the Protocol prohibited all non-scientific mineral resource activities.

The Antarctic Treaty was a bold and lasting agreement, recently celebrating its 50th year. The treaty’s anniversary gave rise to some optimistic claims

The lesson of fifty years of the Antarctic Treaty System is that the nations of the world can set aside their political and territorial aspirations to share in the management of a vast region of the planet, says Paul Berkman, chair of the International Board for the Antarctic Treaty Summit.

But I wouldn’t make such strong claims so fast.

Geopolitics was not cast aside by the free love of the original Antarctic Treaty.  The US does not recognise the territorial claims of other governments and reserves the right to assert claims.  The USSR, and later Russia, made the same non-commitment to the Treaty.  The success of the Antarctic treaties over the past fifty years was perhaps more the result of the low value of any commercial or strategic military operations in the Antarctic.

While the US has no current claim over territory, it has positioned its Amundsen-Scott research base at the South Pole so as to maintain a presence in all claimed territories (shown in the map below).  The US may very well have secured a right to claim territory that existing claimants leave unoccupied.

We also know Australia does not have the capacity to visit the inland areas of its territorial claim.  This may be problematic as the original Antarctic Treaty has a provision in Article XII allowing a contracting party to call a review of the operation of the treaty after thirty years.  One could expect that our absence, or lack of presence, in our claimed territory puts us in a poor position for any future treaty negotiations that may establish new claims based on current activities.

The rise of new entrants into Antarctica is also concerning for existing territorial claimants.

Russia has seven stations in the AAT; China opened its second station last year; India will start construction on its first over summer; and South Korea is planning to set up a new station near the Easter sector by 2014.

With renewed interest from emerging global economic powers, and the ice sheets receding in some areas, mining the Antarctic is attraction a lot of attention (and here).

So it seems that the ingredients for conflict are slowly being added to the spicy Antarctic political stew (these concerns have been noted elsewhere).   How one resolves these new interests in the mineral rights of Antarctica, with the interests of the existing parties to the Antarctic Treaty System, I am not sure.  But let’s be clear.  The US will not lose out in any future negotiations that allow further exploitation of the Antarctic.  In a hypothetical future scenario where mining becomes allowable under the treaty system, does anyone really expect the US respect the rights established by existing territorial claims? I don’t.

In the end, current Antarctic territorial claims are only valid as long as they are not challenged. So I ask the anarchists and extreme libertarians, exactly how does one negotiate a territorial claim (or defend their property right) with an unmatchable armed force that happens to be an absolutely necessary military ally?

Tips, suggestions, comments and requests to [email protected] + follow me on Twitter @DrCameronMurray


  1. Interesting in respect to the fact that China recently opened a new base in Australian Antartic territory without even the courtsey of asking.

  2. Interesting question Cameron. Maybe this is part of why Rudd wants us to buy 12 Nuc Subs from the US? We’ll have to wait for the next Wiki for the answer. The US with all it’s military assets owns Antarctica most likely so I totally agree with you. The US owns the global monetary system and Antarctica is just another asset.

    I wonder if Australia can setup in the Arctic and stake a claim there. If it’s good for everyone to setup in Antarctica why not the reverse?

  3. Diogenes the Cynic

    Your question does not have a good answer..Australia would ultimately lose out.

    I suspect the constraints of Peak Oil will make Antartic Mining a very marginal proposition so it may well be more of an academic question for foreign policy wonks.

  4. I think you are posing your question to anarchists (imo extreme libertarians are really just anarchists).. libs fully support a central (but limited) govt with national defence…

    lets just hope oil or some other precious commodity isnt found in truckloads

    • You are right, but some of the libertarian blogs around are extreme.

      They didn’t like me pointing out the irony of readers calling for comment regulation over at Russ Roberts’ blog


      I do think that if the ice does melt significantly over the next decade viable mineral and energy reserves will be found. However, if that is the case, perhaps it will also make extraction the Russian resources near the Arctic and in Siberia more viable as well. So Antarctica might be a lucky land of peace for a while longer.

      • Rumple,

        “So Antarctica might be a lucky land of peace for a while longer”

        The operative word there is “LAND”.

        The big difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic is that the former is mostly ocean, whilst the latter is a bloody big continent.

        This has significant ramifications for extraction and processing costs. It also has certain logistics advantages in terms of establishing loading and shipping centres, and supplying Asian markets.

        With the ongoing shift in the centre of world political and military gravity, its strategic value in the southern hemisphere is of growing importance as well.

        Regards Diogenes comments re: peak oil effects – there are huge coal reserves in Antarctica, along with unknown, but probably significant, oil reserves – it will most likely be quite capable of powering itself for quite a while.

        It gives me no pleasure to acknowledge any of the above – it is a place very dear to me.

    • TS,

      It already has.

      Many years ago the yanks had the “Glomar Challenger” down there, obstensibly for scientific drilling. Strangely enough, she encountered hydrocarbons in a number of the holes drilled (most of them, as I recall).

      There are huge reserves of coal, gold, diamonds, and all sorts of other goodies dwon there.

      What you have to remember is that the Antarctic land mass was once part of a single land mass that included Australia. So, what we’ve got, it’s got.

      So, I guess we go from Quarry Australia to Quarry Antarctica once it gets warm enough.

      Can you imagine the fantastic debate between China Fanboy and The Lorax over that one? 🙂

      • “So, I guess we go from Quarry Australia to Quarry Antarctica once it gets warm enough.”

        Now that was funny! Now I haven’t been to Antarctica but have been to Ushuaia and I for one would not be keen for a project south unless it was considerably warmer.

        Funnily, I feel a real ’emotional pull’ for that part of the world and the thought of Antarctica being a quarry is a hurdle in my mind. OK. I’m over it. But with absolute best practice at every level. Humans will always attempt to contrive the natural world to their advantage. Truth, someone above said we would lose out on this one – reckon that might just be right.

        Unfortunate because we’d do it pretty OK.


        • Looks magnificent, 3D,

          So many places – so little time 🙂

          Their record low looks a bit wussy, though. -42 is so much more invigorating.

          Glad to see you got over that hurdle in record time – I’m afraid I’ve seen too much bastardisation of the term “best practice” to hold out much hope for the great white south.

          Life down there survives on a knife-edge – there is no margin for error.

          And we human beings are renowned for our good intentions, and our lousy errors.

  5. This is a straw man argument.

    The only reason the current multi-lateral approach even looks like it functions is because there is currently no substantial demand for people and businesses to move to Antarctica.

    Its like arguing over property rights in the Australian desert. Nobody cares and you won’t see visible conflicts no matter what the system of government.

    Anarcho-capitalists and ideological libertarians believe in property rights.

    If a resource has not yet been allocated to anybody, then it will belong to the first individual to use it.

  6. A market is formed when the most powerful gang (eg the govt) cedes partial control over resources to weaker entities (eg citizens) by creating and enforcing a definition of private property.
    Very few people understand this, and my hat is off to you Cameron for being one of the few who does. (I occasionally argue with free-market and anarcho-whatever nutters on the Internet too.)

  7. What Jono said….

    ‘extreme libertarians’ or what I would call ‘anarcho-capitalists’ hold to the view of ‘first use’ homesteading of natural unused resources, such as land. But there must be a clear and subjective link between the person and claim over the area, such as fencing or land clearing. Verbal decree over the wastes of Antarctica is not enough.

    And I totally disagree with your claims that “the existence of property rights first requires the existence of a government with a monopoly on coercive force”

    The concept of property ownership and property rights is intrinsic even to small children. A community of people always come to a natural harmony regarding property rights based on physical embordering and boundaries. There is no need for a State, using postive law decree, to enforce an idea that already come naturally to people.

    There dozens of examples in history of societies that had no state, and the settlement of disputes regarding property rights was carried out by non state adjudicators and local community. These areas were mostly in the fringes of Europe. It was in these areas that standards of living increased tenfold and capitalism first flourished, all due to the lack of a State having a monopoly of coercive force.

    It’s just while this was going on, there were still all the wars between the kings and queens in mainland europe, and these events are what fills the history books.

    • I’d appreciate some examples. And some insights into why these societies no longer exist.

      Regarding the allocation of resources on a first come first serve basis, how has that played out historically? If you can’t defend a right it doesn’t exist.

      Also who resolves disputes about who had the first right to a property? You realise this exact problem has been source of tension in the middle east and elsewhere for thousands of years.

      • The Arabs and Kurds were nomadic.
        The San (Bushmen) of Africa span most of Southern Africa.
        Many African tribes cross (Western drawn) borders as well.
        Palestinians are people without a country.
        Pygmy peoples of various ethnicities are scattered across central Africa.

  8. “I have often argued with extreme libertarians (and anarchists) that the existence of property rights first requires the existence of a government with a monopoly on coercive force (ie. government requires the largest armed force).”

    Then you would like the idea of the Repressive State Apparatus and the work by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Gramsci

    Truly worth having a look at Gramsci I think it would be of interest.


  9. Whoops, at the end of the article you accidentally referred to China as an “absolutely necessary military ally”. I agree that this belligerent leviathan would trample any and every claim we may have to this virgin land if given the incentive and means, but with any luck our actual absolutely necessary military ally will still possess the armed forces capable of outmatching China, should the incentive arise. We will see.

    • I meant the US is our absolutely necessary ally. They will be just as keen as anyone for mineral resources and have openly stated they do not acknowledge existing claims. What bargaining power do we have? We can’t say no.

        • Osama allegedly goaded them into spending billions (trillions) of dollars they didn’t have into getting payback. They’re still spending money that they still don’t have to get payback.

          Is a pyrrhic victory still a victory?