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Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting

Volume 387: debated on Tuesday 15 November 1977

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what conclusions were reached by the Ninth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, representing 13 nations, and what proposals the United Kingdom made for co-operative administration and development.

My Lords, the meeting which was held in London from 19th September to 7th October considered many aspects of Antarctic co-operative administration and development. The participants agreed to recommend to their Governments that they conclude before the end of next year a definitive régime for the conservation, including rational use, of Antarctic marine living resources. They also recommended rapid action towards an internationally-agreed approach to the exploration and exploitation of Antarctic minerals. The United Kingdom delegation contributed substantially to these developments. I have arranged to place in the Library of the House a copy of the statement released by the chairman after the meeting.

My Lords, while welcoming the decisions reached, may I ask the Minister this: Is it not significant that, while there was only scientific research, there was complete co-operation between Governments—the USA, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and even South Africa—but when commercial possibilities were found, territorial claims were made, sometimes overlapping? Could not Her Majesty's Government use their influence to make the Antarctic, for the first time, an international continent for the benefit of the whole of mankind?

My Lords, I think that in all but name that is the position in the Antarctic. The Treaty ensures that national claims are frozen—I believe that is the right word—so that for some years now, since 1959, those countries which have national claims, we among them, have desisted from asserting or insisting upon those claims. In the meantime, a truly international approach has been made to the various aspects of the protection and exploration of the Antarctic, and I believe that the objectives which my noble friend has in mind are now being effectively achieved.

My Lords, could the Minister say whether, as a result of this agreement, the United Kingdom now has any sovereign rights over any part of the Antarctic?

My Lords, there is the British Antarctic Territory but, as I suggested in my first reply to my noble friend, it is a very pleasing and encouraging fact that for many years now, since 1959—and it continues—all countries have effectively agreed to subsume within their international objectives their national assertions of territorial and other claims.

My Lords, will the Minister say therefore that this is part of the decolonisation of the penguins?

My Lords, would my noble friend tell us whether, as the outcome of these discussions, we shall have a 200-mile limit for the whole of Antarctica, or are we going to have all these competitive claims within the 200-mile limit?—because this is a very delicate area ecologically.

My Lords, I entirely agree that this is a very sensitive area ecologically, as my noble and very learned friend reminds us. Indeed, it is one of the most encouraging aspects of the Ninth Meeting of the Consultative Committee that they have addressed themselves both to the subject of marine life and its conservation, which is part of what my noble friend had in mind, and also to the possible exploration and exploitation of minerals. I entirely agree with him—and I believe I am speaking for the Consultative Committee, which includes 13 nations—that in any approach to economic zones the principle of subsumation of national rights and claims must continue to be that of derogation to international objectives. I am very confident, basing myself on the history of this matter, that we can look forward to a future of continued international organisation of the Antarctic.

My Lords, while this may better be the subject of an Unstarred Question, I wonder whether the Minister would be able to say something about policing arrangements for this area; or have they not yet been considered?

My Lords, I hardly think that that question has arisen. No doubt it has been thought of, but I do not see any record of it having been part of the discussion. But the noble Baroness is right: this is one aspect of the future that should be considered, and no doubt will be. What I can say is that the telecommunications aspect of the organisation of the area is well in hand and that it is bringing increasing benefits in the meteorological field.

My Lords, could my noble friend say what machinery has been established as a result of this consultative conference to deal with these problems, and what is going to happen meanwhile with the maritime hydrocarbon and mineral resources which are now being separately exploited?

My Lords, I am not aware that they are being separately exploited in any significant degree. A good deal of research is taking place on the spot in which we are engaged. British research is prominent in this field as in so many others. I will take my noble friend's point and advisement, but I think that I can tell him now that there is no considerable or, indeed, significant exploitation which requires us to look at the terms of the Treaty and its implementation.

As to the first part of his supplementary question on arrangements for the implementation of the two main recommendations made by this Consultative Committee on minerals and on marine life, ad hoc arrangements are well in hand. There will be a convention, I think, hopefully before the end of next year, on marine living resources. Another meeting is projected for dealing with the further examination of mineral resources.

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that Argentina, in particular, completely accepts the internationl status of the Antarctic?

My Lords, obviously the record of the Ninth Meeting shows that nobody objected to the re-statement in very practical terms of the international approach to this question by any member country, and Argentina is one of the 13.