Polar Notes

Mar 2024

Polar Note: 80 years of Polar Diplomacy

80 years of Polar Diplomacy

Jane Rumble in Antarctica

Jane Rumble, Head of Polar Regions Department for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, looks back at the last 80 years of UK Polar diplomacy, exploring its origins during World War II, through to the present day, where she now heads up a team covering both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

On 1 February 1944, the then Foreign Office appointed its first Antarctic expert.  It was the height of World War II, and despite the tragedy that was befalling Europe, the UK decided that it was nevertheless not prepared to allow Chile and Argentina to encroach on the UK’s sovereign claim to the great white continent.  Dr. Brian Roberts, an Antarctic explorer and scholar, based at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, had already been commandeered to support the planning for a secret wartime mission, Operation Tabarin, to reassert the UK’s claim to the British Antarctic Territory.  This gradually transformed into a full-time role, and Brian was eventually offered a rolling three-month contract as the Antarctic expert in the Research Department.

Operation Tabarin saw the Royal Navy sail to Antarctica to assess, and in many cases remove, evidence of Chilean and Argentine activities, and to establish a series of permanent British bases on the Antarctic Peninsula.  In true British tradition, sovereignty was asserted through scientific research and opening a post office.  The first base established was at Port Lockroy, which, now operated by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, still provides postal services; and the British Antarctic Survey ensures the UK remains a world leader in Antarctic science.

Port Lockroy

After the war, tensions over Antarctic sovereignty continued to grow, and the new emerging super-powers of the US and USSR determined that actually Antarctica probably ought to belong to one of them.  A summit was arranged in Washington and 12 countries with Antarctic interests assembled to thrash out the Antarctic Treaty.  Brian Roberts represented the UK and remained in Washington for the six weeks of negotiations it took to develop the Treaty, which eventually emerged for signature on 1 December 1959.  The Treaty established Antarctica as a reserve for peace and science, setting aside – but critically not denying – the territorial claims, and establishing Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) as a forum for consultation and consensus decision-making, which still meet annually today.  

Brian Roberts’ role morphed from the operational, to the diplomatic, and he was joined, in 1964, by Dr John Heap, an Antarctic scholar with a PhD from the British Antarctic Survey. John Heap took over as the leader of the UK Delegation to the Antarctic Treaty when Brian Roberts retired at the end of 1975.

Whilst the Treaty had ensured Antarctica remained the only continent still, to this day, never to have seen conflict, it left plenty of issues outstanding, for example, whether Antarctica’s resources should be utilised...  John Heap’s tenure of 17 years as Head of Delegation saw the negotiations of new instruments including the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which also regulates fishing activities, and came into force in 1982.  He also saw the collapse of international support for a minerals convention, to be replaced by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, 1991, which prohibits all commercial exploitation of Antarctic mineral resources.

The Protocol also established Antarctica as a natural reserve and commits signatory Parties to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment.  Like the Treaty, the Protocol does not have an expiry date, so any media reporting you see about the Treaty running out in 2048 is false. That said, the protection of Antarctica is only as strong as the commitment of the Treaty signatories, of which there are now 54.  Seeing the Protocol delivered was a perfect swan-song for John Heap and he decided to swap diplomacy to become the Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute.  Following an epic two-year handover, the reins were passed to Dr Mike Richardson, another scientist with a PhD from the British Antarctic Survey, in 1992.

The mid-1990s saw the thawing of the Cold War and the emergence of Arctic diplomacy.  As the Arctic looked to its Southern cousin for inspiration, Mike Richardson attended the negotiations which led to the formation of the Arctic Council in 1996, securing the UK as one of the original State Observers. And so the Antarctic role transformed into one for both the Polar Regions; a role which Mike Richardson held until 2006.

UK Polar experts: Dr Brian Roberts (1944-1975), Dr John Heap(1976-1992) and Dr Mike Richardson (1992-2006)

And on Mike’s retirement, Jane Rumble became the fourth person to lead what is now the Polar Regions Department.  Being the first female in the role, following Dr Brian Roberts CMG, Dr John Heap CMG and Dr Mike Richardson CMG, Jane was clear that she was going to have to put in the time!  But it hasn’t been too much of a tricky sentence.  Jane describes the Polar Regions as awesome and addictive.  

Polar Regions Department celebrating Polar Pride Day 2023

The FCDO Polar team is small, but passionate, and has since also added delivery of the Blue Belt of marine protection around the Overseas Territories to their portfolio.  

UK delegation to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (JaneRumble and Professor Dame Jane Francis, Director of the British AntarcticSurvey)

We now know that the Antarctic drives the global climate, and the Arctic drives the UK’s weather.  It is therefore incredible that the UK has only really considered the Poles as major geostrategic regions over just 80 years. Upon the shoulders of giants, however, the Polar Regions Department strives forth, wondering how this will all look in the next 80 years.