Our Burning Planet


Ice Wide Shut — Inside the complex, secretive world of the Antarctic Treaty

Ice Wide Shut — Inside the complex, secretive world of the Antarctic Treaty
From left: Leading Environmental Lawyer, Cormac Cullinan. | Investigative Journalist, Tiara Walters. | Author of 'The Polar Worlds', Mikaa Mered. (Photos: Supplied)

In a Daily Maverick webinar on Wednesday, Our Burning Planet’s Tiara Walters, South African environment lawyer Cormac Cullinan and French polar expert Mikaa Mered plunged into the enigmatic world of Antarctica — a climate-threatened wilderness ruled by an elite club that meets behind closed doors, banning media and most activists.

Unless you’re a scientist or government official, you’ve likely never been to Antarctica. But, as humans continue pumping planet-warming gases into the atmosphere at an industrial scale, the ice-covered continent is increasingly likely to visit your shores through rising seas. 

In a Wednesday webinar, investigative journalist Tiara Walters was joined by leading rights-of-nature lawyer Cormac Cullinan and French polar lecturer Mikaa Mered, who warned the Antarctic Treaty System — the framework that rules Earth’s melting, southernmost continent — makes critical decisions about a tenth of the world behind a Cold War-era “Ice Curtain”. This is a phrase coined by the Tasmania-based polar author and journalist, Andrew Darby. 

“The select states ruling Antarctica — such as the US, the EU, China and Russia — ban media, and most of the global activist community from attending their meetings,” Walters reported, flagging these exclusive diplomatic gatherings as “the very events that decide how to govern a place that holds all our lives in its icy embrace”.

“In 2022 alone, [Antarctic] temperatures have soared 40 degrees Celsius above normal,” said Walters, who reports for Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit. “The ice sheet holds 60m of sea-level rise: losing 1% of this will swamp shorelines across Earth.”

The Antarctic club — which is not a UN body — is composed of only 54 of 190-odd UN states. Of those, just 29 have a say in how the icy region is run. “Other than South Africa, as a voting state, and Namibia as a non-voting state,” noted Walters, “the people of Africa have zero say in what happens to Antarctica.

“This is no doubt a precious agreement to many, but with such awkward politics lording over this global commons, many are now asking … is the Antarctic Treaty still fit to rule 60 years after coming into force, or is it time to treat the melting continent like a real person with rights?” 

‘Crafting narratives’

The panellists praised the treaty system for its diplomatic achievements and creating “predictability”. Yet Mered, secretary-general of the Chair on Overseas Territories at the Paris-based Sciences Po research institute, said Antarctic governance was shrouded in mystery. 

“Antarctica has always been remote, very far away from decision-making circles and from the scrutiny of public opinions,” said Mered, author of the monograph Les Mondes Polaires (The Polar Worlds). “Basically, what countries have done ever since the 19th century, is whatever they want in Antarctica, and then frame a narrative, frame a story, to sell this Antarctic prestige … 

“Now, it’s a little different because these treaty meetings do happen every year in May or June in big capital cities all across the world — and media, journalists, people want to come in and report on that,” he explained.

Yet, stage-managed press statements are released at the start and end of meetings, and the formal negotiations operate under a blackout. Journalists, environmental groups and other interested parties did not want carefully prepackaged information, he pointed out, “but that’s not really how Antarctic diplomacy is done; it’s always been a club approach”.

“Whether we’re talking about the Western original states at the birth of this treaty club approach, or whether we talk about the newcomers, such as China, India or other major players in international relations,” he noted, they want to “craft” a preferred narrative “to serve their own interest”.

Great power competition: a ‘solution’

It is in the face of this opacity and through a grip on the continent’s management consolidated by treaty states, that this “Pandora’s Box” may now have to answer to a changing climate and world order, plus civil-society initiatives — such as the Declaration on the Rights of Antarctica

This initiative is driven by Cullinan and an international civil society movement. 

Cullinan, a treaty outsider and trail-blazing Cape Town lawyer, is also leading a case against Shell’s controversial seismic surveys off South Africa’s coast and represents the Khoi and San peoples in a high-profile case against the River Club development, also in the city. The latter includes Amazon’s regional headquarters.

“This is an enormously important area,” said Cullinan, referring to the threatened Antarctic continent and Southern Ocean region, which is five times bigger than Australia. “We’re talking about approximately 20% of the southern hemisphere’s surface area, or 10% of the global surface area …

“Climate change is affecting it very much … if that ice on the land slips off or melts into the sea, there are potentially catastrophic increases in sea-level rise by many metres, not centimetres.”

The current regime was “born of a different world” that “can’t accommodate challenges like climate change, which arise outside of the treaty area”, argued Cullinan, also author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice.

Antarctica’s rights declaration was not “something that would dismantle the Antarctic Treaty System”, he stressed. It was about “being able to move forward and create a parallel vision of an entirely different governance system, a prototype, if you like, of how things could be done better”.

Seven major member states, including the UK, Argentina and Australia, have long-standing Antarctic territorial claims, which are “frozen” only as long as the treaty holds. To resolve “inevitable” power competition around issues such as mining, Cullinan said the rights declaration would urge states to reject such claims permanently.

“This is to say, ‘None of you have sovereignty. Antarctica is sovereign unto itself,’ ” he said. “That whole Antarctic ecosystem is self-regulating. It works just fine without humans.”  

Meet my client, Antarctica

“I would like to see a situation one day when you can stand up in the courts in France, South Africa or anywhere else, and say, ‘I’m representing Antarctica and your climate change activities are having a severe impact on my client and ought to be restricted in some way,” Cullinan added.

The rights declaration would enable Antarctica “to sit as a member of the UN, speaking for itself”. This would involve “complete transparency”, he argued.

For her part, Walters, in her recent year-long investigation, revealed Russia had never stopped combing Antarctica for apparently vast oil, gas and other mineral reserves, despite the region’s 1998 mining ban. Walters showed the Kremlin’s mineral explorer and associates, acting under the shroud of this club as a possible “gentleman’s agreement”, had been using Cape Town as a springboard on a yearly basis.

It is unclear how much of these resources are recoverable — but the journalist’s series lifted the lid on multiple state sources pointing to 500 billion barrels of oil and gas: 15 times annual global consumption. 

The explorer, Rosgeo, told Daily Maverick their mineral surveys were purely scientific, and thus allowed by the ban’s research clause. A senior state geoscientist also told Walters the sanctions-hit Russian oil and gas industry was not necessarily an obstacle to mining Antarctica in the “longer-term future”. 

To defend Antarctica against extraction, the rights declaration would, among others, aim to challenge potential mining, expanding krill fisheries, whaling and large-scale construction.

‘What is being kept secret?’

Walters cautioned there were exceptions under treaty secrecies: in 2020, Finland had invited media to attend the annual meeting before it was cancelled under pandemic restrictions. Taking place in Helsinki, the Finnish meeting has been rescheduled for 2023. 

Mered noted the recent annual meeting hosted by Germany in May and June had been guarded, due to the diplomatic trials of hosting such an event during Russia’s war against Ukraine — especially as both states were decision-making treaty members. 

Citing a series of Daily Maverick interviews with Ukraine Antarctic officials, and a “limited sideline interview” with a German official, Walters suggested diplomats could “create more open conversations about treaty politics”. She called for “side events” such as press conferences at upcoming meetings — similar to those held at UN climate summits.

The treaty secretariat previously told Daily Maverick it did “not provide comments on situations or actions as it is not in our mandate”. The secretariat also did not respond to email requests for an interview or comment on issues aired during the webinar.

Speaking about the opacity around Antarctica’s management, and how the status quo presented an obstacle to broader engagement, Cullinan suggested “the world of secrecy has been disappearing in the national and international environmental law field … if something’s going to be secret, one really needs to ask what is being kept secret?

“So over time, most people have accepted that the environment is everybody’s business. It’s a common property. It’s the habitat of humanity.” OBP/DM 

View the Declaration on the Rights of Antarctica, a South African and international civil-society initiative, here. 


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