Gaining World Heritage Recognition for Antarctica

This was submitted by Geoff Mosley as a piece for The Conversation 3 days after the release of the latest 20 year Strategy for Antarctica but was not accepted.


A new 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan released in Hobart on 10th October throws cold water on the proposal for an Australian led World Heritage nomination that was endorsed by the Coalition in 2012. This endorsement, supported by the then Shadow Environment Minister Greg Hunt, was made in a speech by Senator David Bushby at ‘The Next Big Step’ public forum held in Hobart on 17th June, 2012. The previous day, even before this had been explained to the public, Dr Tony Press posted a piece on The Conversation criticising the proposal.

It was no therefore no surprise that with Dr Press as the ‘Head Inquirer’ of the Strategic Plan that this criticism was repeated. In it are the same points he made in The Conversation, including that there would be no additional benefits from World Heritage listing it would have only symbolic value, and that the World Heritage Convention makes no specific provisions prohibiting certain activities such as mining. The Strategic Plan goes further and refers to the possibility of World Heritage listing opening up the question of sovereignty and undermining the work of the Antarctic Treaty, saying there is a real possibility that a nomination would challenge the existing effective governance under the Treaty.

Australia, with the largest territorial claim (42%), has a proud record of involvement with the protection of Antarctica, notably through its efforts leading to the adoption of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection (the Madrid Protocol). The Protocol banned all mineral activity indefinitely and set the continent aside as a ‘natural reserve devoted to peace and science’. In taking on the leadership in the next big step of World Heritage nomination it is unthinkable that Australia would create risks for these great achievements and the fact that one of the main reasons for listing would be to commemorate them suggests that this criticism is way off beam. When you celebrate something world wide you make appreciation of their value stronger not weaker,

An example of this is the provision in the Madrid Protocol for a possible review of the mineral ban 50 years after it came into force  - from 2048. The conditions for such a review are so strict that it is extremely unlikely that it will take place but if Antarctica were on the World Heritage List for being a place where mineral activity was indefinitely banned and for being the World’s largest wilderness area World Heritage listing would make this even more unacceptable and unlikely. Partly this is because through World Heritage listing nearly all the world’s nations would feel they had a share in these great accomplishments.

International law expert professor Donald Rothwell, another speaker at  ‘The Next Big Step’ forum, made the point that there are no legal obstacles to World Heritage nomination and examined the options for nomination including nomination by single and multiple Antarctic Territory claimants, or by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties. The last option is particularly relevant to the unclaimed parts of Antarctica.

The notion that somehow World Heritage listing could result in a resumption of discussions over sovereignty are readily countered by Article 1V (2) of the Antarctic Treaty which states “no acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty”. As for the overlapping claims of Britain, Argentina and Chile, the World Heritage Convention (Article 11.3) makes it clear that the inclusion of a property on the World Heritage List “shall in no way prejudice the rights of parties to the dispute”.

The seven claimant states already carry out the major protection roles under the Treaty and the Protocol through their management activities in concert with the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Party meetings and once the continent was placed on the World Heritage List that would be an added responsibility, reporting back also to the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO.

The main question surely is whether or not the great achievements of the Antarctic Treaty and the Madrid Protocol are of Outstanding Universal Value not only for how they have protected Antarctica but also for how they can inspire similar, much needed, cooperation in the field international environment protection. The Antarctic Strategy argues that the legal, practical and diplomatic impediments to gaining World Heritage status for Antarctica are “great – and most likely insurmountable”. That was certainly not the approach that Australia took when it led the campaigns for the Treaty and the Protocol. Australia can do it again if it has the necessary vision.

Geoff Mosley

Geoff is a world heritage expert and the author of three books and one major report to IUCN on Antarctica. As Convenor of People for an Antarctic World Park he and Bob Brown organised The Next Big Step Forum in Hobart in June 2012.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.