Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent – it is about 40% larger than Europe, approximately the size of the United States of America and Mexico combined, and nearly twice the size of Australia. Most of the continent is covered by an ice sheet with an average thickness of 1.9 km, and the Southern Ocean surrounds it. Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean cover approximately 10% of the surface of Earth.
More importantly, Antarctica (including the Southern Ocean) is a unique community of life that deserves our admiration, respect and protection.
Antarctica is crucial to maintaining global climatic and ecological stability and the health of all Earth’s ecological communities (including human communities). It cools Earth by reflecting sunlight and removing huge amounts of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, maintains the global circulation of the ocean and sea levels, and supports unique ecosystems and species. As the cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet relatively warmer they sink and create a zone of mixing and upwelling that forms a natural boundary around the Southern Ocean known as the Antarctic Convergence or Polar Front. This nutrient-rich area supports huge populations of Antarctic krill as well as whales, penguins and other species that eat krill.
The threats to Antarctica are intensifying rapidly, and these concerning trends may soon become unstoppable. Climate change poses a significant threat, leading to ice melting, rising sea levels, and disruptions to delicate ecosystems. Climate change is occurring faster at the poles, and significant reductions in sea ice pose a risk to krill populations on which many marine species depend directly or indirectly. Pollution, overfishing and the growing tourism industry are additional concerns. Furthermore, despite the mining ban, some States are undertaking geological surveys apparently motivated by a desire to mine Antarctica in future.
The whole world will suffer if Antarctica’s ice melts. The Antarctic ice sheet holds 60% of the world’s freshwater; if it all melted, global average sea levels would rise by about 58 metres (190ft). The ice in West Antarctica (enough to raise sea levels by around 5m or 16ft) is already losing mass, and the Thwaites Glacier that flows into the Amundsen Sea is a particular concern.
Melting ice around Antarctica will cause a rapid slowdown of a significant global deep ocean current by 2050 that could alter the world’s climate for centuries and accelerate the rise of sea levels. This could result in cascading impacts that push up sea levels, radically alter rainfall and weather patterns and starve marine life of a vital source of nutrients. Significant rises in sea levels will inundate coastal cities, ecosystems and farmland, displace people and create climate refugees.
Antarctica is not within the territory or subject to the sovereignty of any State and does not have a government to represent it and negotiate on its behalf. It is governed by a collective of States under the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). There are currently 56 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, but only 29 “Consultative Parties” have a vote. Most decisions are made during the Antarctic Treaty System’s yearly Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) and must be made by consensus. This means that a single country can effectively veto a proposal, making it very difficult to achieve significant changes.
The ATCM meeting is held in private. Still, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), and the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) have observer status. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) are invited to ATCM meetings to provide specialist expertise.
The ATS is a system of international treaties and other instruments built around the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959. It includes the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, the Convention for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), and the Madrid Protocol. The Treaty was a progressive response to competing claims to the continent of Antarctica. It set aside the continent as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation, banned military activity and prevented denuclearisation.
The Antarctic Rights Initiative
Human beings claim to have inherent human rights merely because they exist, and human rights are recognised in international law and most legal systems. Recognising Rights of Nature means recognising that all beings that have evolved as part of Earth also have inherent rights, including the right to exist and to fulfil their unique role in ecological and evolutionary processes. It requires seeing animals, plants, rivers and other ecological beings as subjects, not as objects or property. This allows human institutions to be used more effectively to guide people, companies and governments towards living harmoniously within Nature.
Rights of Nature are recognised in over 200 laws and policies in nearly 40 countries and is referenced in many international documents, including over ten United Nations General Assembly Resolutions on “Harmony with Nature” (2009-2022), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Resolution 100 (2012), and the Convention on Biological Diversity Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (2022).
Antarctica is a wild place without Indigenous Peoples, a government or a voice in international affairs. It is not subject to the law of any State, although people within Antarctica remain subject to the laws of their countries. Recognising Antarctica as a legal entity with a status similar to that of a State (i.e. as a sovereign legal person recognised under international law) would open the door to it being represented in decision-making processes that affect it (like international climate change negotiations) by people who are dedicated to advancing the best interest of Antarctica.
Recognising that Antarctica has fundamental legal rights establishes a standard for holding States, corporations and individuals legally accountable if they act in ways that infringe those rights (as is done with human rights). The draft Antarctica Declaration defines those rights and the corresponding human duties to ensure they are upheld. This will guide the development of laws, policies and institutions necessary to ensure that the Declaration is given effect to, and help ensure that people worldwide do not act in ways that harm Antarctica.
The Antarctic Rights working group is asking organisations and individuals to join an Antarctic Alliance, which will finalise and adopt an Antarctic Declaration and then establish means of implementing it. We anticipate that this will involve establishing an “Antarctic Council” (or similar body) which can identify and promote legal and policy interventions in Antarctica’s best interests. This could be like a parliament and include diverse voices and perspectives reflecting Antarctic beings’ diversity. Once established, the Antarctic Alliance and its allies will promote the adoption and implementation of the Declaration globally.
The idea of recognising a human or institution to speak on behalf of a legal subject who cannot represent themselves (e.g. an unborn child) is well established in law. Appointing representatives for Antarctica with expertise, commitment, and dedication is critical to safeguard its best interests in decision-making processes. The members of the Antarctic Alliance will engage with one another, and others concerned about Antarctica to develop systems to ensure legitimate and effective representation of Antarctica. For example, the proposed Antarctic Council could mandate appropriate representatives to speak on behalf of Antarctica in various decision-making processes and courts.
The draft Declaration and the accompanying explanatory memorandum have been prepared by an international working group of Antarctic and Rights of Nature experts to serve as a basis for further discussion and debate. The draft Declaration seeks to promote harmonious coexistence between humans and the members of the Antarctic community of life. The draft will be refined to take into account the comments received before being finalised. A date for its adoption has yet to be set.
IMPLEMENTATION AND IMPACTS
The Declaration requires determining what is in the best interests of Antarctica. Research oriented to determining how best to maintain and enhance the health and function of this community of life will help attune humanity to how to relate to Antarctica. Articulating what is in the best interests of Antarctica is also likely to enhance international cooperation in scientific research and deepen our understanding of this unique and precious constellation of ecosystems. We anticipate that it will also encourage an inclusive approach that considers Indigenous and other forms of knowledge to generate valuable new perspectives.
The draft Declaration specifies that human activities within Antarctica are only acceptable if they do not violate the rights and freedoms recognised in the Declaration, are not contrary to the best interests of Antarctica, and are consistent with the principles of harmonious coexistence. This means that any tourism and fishing that harms Antarctica would be prohibited, and all human activities would have to be planned and implemented in ways that respect the rights of Antarctic beings.
It will facilitate a fundamental change in how people perceive, value, and relate to Antarctica, ultimately driving the legal and political changes necessary to ensure better protection. Adopting and popularising the Declaration will establish new international norms for how humans relate to Antarctica, make it clear that everyone, everywhere, has an interest in ensuring that Antarctica is protected from human harm, and a duty to ensure that its voice is heard and its rights enforced. Furthermore, this model could then be used to consider protecting other places beyond Antarctica.
LEGAL AND POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS
The Declaration is not intended to replace the ATS, nor could it. The adoption of the Declaration would be analogous to the adoption of the (non-binding) Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. Its adoption did not replace international law. Instead, it provided a standard or yardstick of universally accepted norms of human behaviour that could be used to assess existing laws and, if they were found wanting, guide the amendment or replacement of those laws. We hope that the adoption of an Antarctic Declaration will have a similar positive impact on how people perceive and relate to Antarctica and guide the progressive reform of the ATS and laws, policies and institutions at the international, transnational, national and sub-national levels to afford higher levels of protection for Antarctica and Antarctic beings.
Antarctica is important to everyone, and if we don’t protect Antarctica, people throughout the world will suffer the consequences. This initiative will enable the whole global community to collaborate around a single, unifying goal, which is beneficial to all and can only be achieved through global collaboration. This means that supporting this initiative is in the interest of the States already participating in the ATS and those that currently do not influence Antarctic matters.
Yes, recognising Antarctica’s legal rights could serve as an inspiration and precedent for acknowledging the rights of Nature in other ecologically significant areas. This initiative aims to inspire similar initiatives and to address the most serious challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century by facilitating a paradigm shift in how humankind views and interacts with Nature.
ENGAGEMENT AND SUPPORT
Individuals can support the initiative by signing on as supporters, encouraging organisations to become members of the Antarctic Alliance, raising awareness about the value of Antarctica and the importance of this initiative, participating in advocacy campaigns, and supporting organisations working towards Antarctica’s legal recognition. Donations and volunteering are also valuable contributions.
NGOs and other civil society organisations can support the initiative by becoming members of the Antarctic Alliance and collaborating with other members in raising awareness about the value of Antarctica and the importance of this initiative, finalising and adopting the Declaration and establishing the means to give practical effect to the Rights of Antarctica.
Yes, businesses can support the initiative through corporate social responsibility programs, funding research, adopting sustainable practices, and promoting environmental awareness among employees and customers.