Polar Notes

Jun 2016

The Santiago Declaration

On 30 May 2016, the 29 countries comprising the Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty gathered in Santiago, Chile for the 39th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). To mark the 25th Anniversary of the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty (also known as the Madrid Protocol), the countries issued ‘The Santiago Declaration’ reaffirming, in particular, “their strong and unequivocal commitment to Article 7 of the Environmental Protocol”, which prohibits any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research.  

The ban on mining is a central feature of the Madrid Protocol, signed by 29 countries in 1991. The purpose of the Protocol is to harmonise the protection of the Antarctic environment across the many countries with interests in the region, so that Antarctica itself could be designated a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. Prior to the Protocol, international attempts to ban or regulate mining under the Antarctic Treaty had been blocked.

The Santiago Declaration changes little in practice but it does send out a strong reminder to the rest of the world that the Consultative Parties are strongly committed to the continued prohibition of mining in Antarctica. In recent years, speculation, particularly in the media, has led to suggestions that the Madrid Protocol will “expire” after fifty years, sparking a new geopolitical contest over who owns Antarctica’s natural resource wealth.  

However, such speculation rests on a fundamental misreading of the original Protocol. The ban on mining is indefinite and can only be modified according to strict rules (set out in Article 25): for the ban to be modified at any time, all the Consultative Parties must first agree. Alternatively, after fifty years, a review conference may be called by any of the Consultative Parties. Even then, any modification or amendment to the Protocol requires the support of at least three quarters of the Consultative Parties. It would also require a new “binding legal regime on Antarctic mineral resource activities that includes an agreed means for determining whether, and, if so, under which conditions, any such activities would be acceptable”. Subject to a significant change of heart among the Consultative Parties, the mining ban will remain in place for a long time to come.  

While the confirmation of the mining ban was arguably the most headline-grabbing part, the Santiago Declaration also reaffirmed the Consultative Parties commitment to the Environmental Protocol in general, emphasising their ongoing dedication to protecting the Antarctic environment and its associated and dependent ecosystems. Another outcome was to welcome an increase in Consultative Parties to the Protocol from 29 to 37.  

Other topics on the agenda at the ATCM included scientific research cooperation (international collaboration was repeatedly described as the best mechanism for promoting environmental protection), Treaty inspections, tourism, information exchange, management of historical sites and education. The next ATCM will be hosted by China in 2017.