What’s wrong with Antarctic colonialism?

That Antarctica stands as no exception in world history, but should be seen instead as part and parcel of the colonial project and mindset, has become a commonplace since 1982, when, in a passionate speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mohammed bin Mahathir, denounced the AT as “an agreement between a select group of countries [which failed to] reflect the true feelings of the members of the United Nations or their just claims”. This discourse slowly gave rise to a “post-colonial engagement” with Antarctica by scholars working in critical geopolitics and security studies, history, anthropology, international relations and other disciplines.[1] It also challenged the widespread assumption that, because the United States and the Soviet Union (instead of the European powers) were dominant in the AT, the latter was not an appendix of the colonial era. What made this project colonial, as Mahathir suggested, was the fact that only a select group of states took part, imposing their own rules of exclusivity.

It now gets repeatedly mentioned in the literature that the discovery, exploitation of marine resources and subsequent claiming of Antarctica by different states merely echoed what was going on at the time on a global scale: the conquest of land and resources for political, strategic and economic reasons; the projection of capital to the furthest corners of the earth; and a growing pressure over key natural resources by multinational companies that kept pushing the ‘resource frontier’ further and further. Moreover, as Klaus Dodds puts it, the AT did not eliminate, but rather rewarded these attempts at colonial occupation and annexation. Accordingly, its new members were “forced to replicate the colonizing behavior of earlier parties” via the establishment of scientific bases to prove they were conducting substantial research activity in the continent, and thus accede to Consultative status.

Shirley Scott has retold Antarctic history as three successive imperialist waves performed through colonial practices. The first wave took place in the 16th century, when Spain and Portugal divided the “New World” between them - and therefore, the yet to be discovered terra australis incognita. The second wave took place throughout the period where states staked their territorial claims over the continent as if it were terra nullius available for acquisition. The third wave is ongoing since the AT was signed, with the United States “using the rhetoric of universal science as justification”.

Adrian Howkins discusses the mentality of settler colonialism (i.e. ‘a desire to conquer nature and to appropriate space’) as falling under the umbrella of imperialism, and remarks that it is “no coincidence that all the countries involved in the twentieth-century ‘Scramble for Antarctica’ were also practicing settler colonial imperialism in other parts of the world”.[2]

To give one last example, in the course of criticising the obsession with sovereignty of the seven historic claimants, Alan Hemmings points out that “the present Antarctic dispensation, including the treatment of territory, was arrived at prior to the existence of more than half of the world’s present states, as a result of an imperial and colonial model now generally repudiated”.

There is thus wide agreement that Antarctica was and remains a colonial enclave. What is harder to find is a categorisation of the moral wrongs specific to this kind of colonialism, and a request for explicit recognition of the colonial origins of Antarctic claims, as well as for a revision of the colonial terms under which the “Antarctic contract” was originally signed, and under which it is currently sustained. In the remainder of this section, I point to three such wrongs.

There are two kinds of theories that have been developed in political philosophy to explain the moral wrong of colonialism that seem relevant for our purposes. A first kind of theory sees the moral wrong of colonialism as lying in the unjust taking of land from indigenous populations for the massive settlement of groups who came from the colonial power, and maintained their allegiance to it. As Margaret Moore explains, this process not only disrupted the affective attachment of the natives to the land, but robbed them of their collective right to be self-determining over that territory, to decide what lifeplans and projects they wished to pursue there. A second kind of theory, defended by Lea Ypi, sees the moral wrong of colonialism as consisting in the political domination of one group over another, where this domination involves “the creation and upholding of a political association that denies its members equal and reciprocal terms of cooperation”. According to this account, the morally problematic feature of colonialism lies not in the occupation of someone else’s land per se, but in the terms under which distinct territorial agents (i.e. the colonisers and the colonised) were made to interact.

Because of the lack of native Antarcticans, it might seem odd to try to apply these theories to our case.[3] My contention, however, is that a reinterpretation of each can help to make sense of three distinctive wrongs of Antarctic colonialism.

The first wrong, I submit, consisted in the unilateral appropriation by a few states of extravagant expanses of uninhabited (and mostly uninhabitable) space. In a context where it was already clear that the earth’s land and resources were not infinite, and that humans were exhausting them quite rapidly, those who staked claims over Antarctica during the first half of the 20th century did so with a hoarding and overwhelming attitude, almost completely foreclosing the possibility of future takings. Moreover, in so doing they left out the majority of the world’s states and the majority of humankind.'' Following Moore’s theory, it was a wrongful taking of land. But departing from Moore, what made it wrong was not the eviction or subjugation of native populations. Rather, what should have been considered as a common bounty of humanity (the last continent to be discovered, the only land left on earth yet to be explored) was divided into pie-shaped wedges among only seven countries, and claimed on grounds that could have at best justified much more modest appropriations.

The second and third wrongs of Antarctic colonialism have to do with political domination and are thus connected to Ypi’s account. They consist, first, in the creation of a political association (the AT) whose members appointed themselves as representatives of all mankind when it came to governing the fifth largest continent on earth; and, second, in the maintenance of a system where not all members are treated on equal and reciprocal terms.[4]

The birth of the AT, in 1959, took place with only 12 states taking part: the historic claimants, those who did not make claims but reserved their right to make such claims in the future, and those others which had conducted science in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958.2S It has been repeatedly argued in defence of this arrangement that the time was ripe to lay down rules and prevent Cold War tensions from escalating on the “white” continent; that the beauty of the Treaty was precisely that it left sovereign claims suspended in order to focus on peaceful scientific cooperation instead; that keeping it as a demilitarised and nuclear-free zone was a true diplomatic feat. However, it is well-known that some of the claimants blocked from the beginning the idea of establishing a genuinely international association, which would have required them to give up their claims entirely. Because it was better to have a frozen claim than none, the AT was constituted for this purpose by the claimants themselves, and with the approval of a handful of other states.

As already shown, Ypi’s theory sees ones of the wrongs of colonialism as consisting in the creation (by the colonisers) of a political system to rule over a group of people (the colonised) who are not treated as equal members in the rule-creating process. The second wrong of Antarctic colonialism, relatedly, lies in the creation of a political system that leaves out from the outset a group of people who should have been treated as members, but were not - i.e. the international community as a whole. The injustice consists not in the constitution of a political association that was not negotiated under equal and reciprocal terms by its members, but in treating a large part of those who should have been members and deliberators in the initial establishment of the association as wards in need of representation. In constituting the AT, the 12 original signatories appointed themselves not only as guardians of Antarctica, but also as guardians (in the sense of legal representatives) of the rest of humanity.

The third wrong of Antarctic colonialism, lastly, consists in the maintenance of a political association with an unequal power structure, where membership is open in theory to all world states, but ‘real' membership (i.e. consultative status with decision-making power) is given exclusively to those capable of conducting “substantial research activity there, such as the establishment of a scientific station or the despatch of a scientific expedition” - a condition that was imposed by the original self-appointed signatories.[5] By turning a politically exogenous feature - i.e. scientific capacity - into the decisive criterion for determining who “votes” and who doesn’t, the AT leaves a large group of states (and thus a substantial percentage of humanity) substantively voteless, while giving decision-making powers over a whole, resource-rich continent to roughly one-sixth of them. This restriction of voting rights is a colonial hangover rather than a clean break with Antarctica’s colonial past: as many have pointed out, the science criterion may be interpreted as the perfect cover-up for ensuring that only states that are developed enough will ever be able to take an active role in Antarctic politics. Here some could object that, insofar as it is a voluntary association, the two-tiered membership of the AT does not violate any requirements of reciprocity or equal treatment to those who wish to become part. They are, after all. free to choose whether or not to join in the first place. But this objection takes for granted precisely what is being put into question; namely, whetherhaving the governance of a whole continent come under the aegis of a handful of states was just to begin with.

In the excessive historic claims, in the constitution, and maintenance of the AT as an elitist political association for privileged states only: therein lie three specific wrongs of Antarctic colonialism. In the next section I make some suggestions as to how to move forward.

  • [1] Klaus Dodds, ’Post-Colonial Antarctica: An Emerging Engagement’, Polar Record 42, no. I (2006): 59-70. 2 I thank Peder Roberts for pointing this out. 3 For an analysis of Antarctica as a “resource frontier”, see Howkins. note 6. In the literature, “imperialism” and “colonialism” are sometimes treated as interchangeable terms, sometimes as two processes that went together hand in hand, and sometimes as if colonialism had been a subset of practices within the wider umbrella of imperialism. For the purposes of the discussion. I will refer to colonialism only, and understand it roughly as a practice of domination through political and economic control over a territory, which standardly included the creation of settlements that kept their political allegiance to the colonising power. Here I draw from the definition offered by Margaret Kohn and Kavita Reddy, ‘Colonialism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 edn), Edward N. Zalta (ed), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/colonialism/, accessed 4 February 2019. 4 Dodds, note 12 at 63. 5 Scott, note 8 at 39 44.
  • [2] Howkins, note 6 at 48. 2 Alan D. Hemmings, ‘Security beyond Claims', in Alan D. Hemmings. Donald R. Rothwell and Karen N. Scott (eds), Antarctic Security in the Twenty-First Century: Legal and Policy Perspectives (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 70 94, at 77. 3 Alan Hemmings comes closest when he analyses four aspects in which territorial claims in Antarctica are wrong: moral, practical, legal and geopolitical. He then advocates for an Antarctic where security is prioritised beyond territorial claims, and where the seven claimants give up their claims to sovereignty in order to be better prepared for future challenges. Hemmings, note 18 at 70 94. 4 The list does not intend to be exhaustive. 5 Margaret Moore, ‘Justice and Colonialism’, Philosophy Compass 11, no. 8 (July-28, 2016): 447 -61. 6 Lea Ypi, ‘What’s Wrong with Colonialism’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 41, no. 2 (2013): 158 91, 158.
  • [3] As Ben Maddison points out, because of its lack of inhabitants, Antarctica was “unsettling to [the Europeans’] prevailing understandings and procedures of colonial possession”: Maddison note 8 at 52. This fact did not prevent them, of course, from “dispossessing” the native population of penguins. In the words of a midshipman in a British expedition that discovered a new island in the South Shetlands, in 1819. the birds “with most disturbing obstinacy disputed our right to proceed... and it was not until great slaughter had been committed and an opening forced through them [that] we were enabled to further our research”: ibid, at 53. 2 I say “almost" because Marie Byrd’s Land, the most inaccessible part of Antarctica. remains unclaimed. 3 In 1959, the population of the seven claimant countries taken together represented a mere 4.74 percent of the total world population. At the time, there were 82 members of the United Nations. See, respectively, United Nations, ‘World Population Prospects’, https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Popula tion/, accessed 19 February 2019; and Donald R. Rothwell. ‘The Antarctic Treaty as a Security Construct’, in Hemmings. Rothwell and Scott, note 18 at 46. 4 The merits of the different grounds for these claims are examined in Alejandra Mancilla, ‘The Moral Limits of Territorial Claims in Antarctica’, Ethics & International Affairs 32, no. 3 (2018), 339-60.
  • [4] In the Preamble, the 12 original signatories recognise “that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”; they are “convinced that the establishment of a firm foundation for the continuation and development of such cooperation on the basis of freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica as applied during the International Geophysical Year accords with the interests of science and the progress of all mankind”', and are convinced that using Antarctica for peaceful purposes only “will further the purposes and principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations”: AT. Preamble, my emphases. 2 Argentina, Australia, Chile. France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom, plus the Soviet Union and the United States, plus Belgium, Japan and South Africa. 3 See, e.g., Francisco Orrego Vicuña, ‘Antarctic Conflict and International Cooperation', in National Research Council, Antarctic Treaty System: An Assessment: Proceedings of a Workshop Held at Beardmore South Field Camp. Antarctica, January 7-13, 1985 (Washington, D.C: National Academy Press, 1986); and Gillian Triggs, ‘The Antarctic Treaty System: A Model of Legal Creativity and Cooperation’, in Paul Arthur Berkman, Michael A. Lang, David W. H. Walton and Oran R. Young (eds). Science Diplomacy: Antarctica. Science, and the Governance of International Spaces (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2011), 39-50. 4 Peter J. Beck. The International Politics of Antarctica (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1986), at 39.
  • [5] AT, Article IX(2). It is true that this requirement has been broadened in interpretation, so that now collaboration with ongoing scientific programmes and use of already established infrastructure is encouraged. The question remains, however, why science should be required at all. 2 Defenders of the AT might object that the most populated countries on earth are Consultative parties, so that the majority of humanity is in fact represented: as of 2018, around 65 percent of it: Kevin A. Hughes, Andrew Constable, Yves Frenot, Jeronimo Lopez-Martinez, Ewan Mclvor. Birgit Njâstad, Aleks Terauds, et al., ‘Antarctic Environmental Protection: Strengthening the Links between Science and Governance', Environmental Science & Policy 83 (2018): 86 95. at 88. 3 On the uneasy relationship between Antarctic science and politics, see John R. Dudeney and David W.H. Walton, ‘Leadership in Politics and Science within the Antarctic Treaty’, Polar Research 31 (2012), 1-9; and Aant Elzinga, ‘The Continent for Science’, in Dodds. Hemmings and Roberts, note 8, 103-124.
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