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Law-making for the last wilderness

28 November 2017
Seeing first-hand the work of diplomats from around the world

Professor Tim Stephens was given a unique opportunity to see international law in action as an observer with the Australian Government delegation to the 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Beijing.

Law making for the last wilderness

The Antarctic Treaty and a suite of supporting treaties protect the Antarctic environment, place sovereign claims made over the continent in ‘deep freeze’, and set up an international governance framework that has been in place since the 1960s.

Central to this system is the annual meeting of Antarctic Treaty parties. In May 2017 ARC Future Fellow Professor Tim Stephens was invited to attend the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) as an academic observer with the Australian Government delegation.

“My current Australian Research Council (ARC) funded research project is examining the implications of global environmental change for international law regimes, including the Antarctic Treaty, and so I greatly valued the opportunity to see how the Antarctic Treaty System actually operates in practice,” says Professor Stephens.

“The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the parallel meeting of the Committee for Environmental Protection are the forums in which crucial decisions are made concerning the management of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.”

Professor Stephens joined Professor Rosemary Rayfuse from the University of New South Wales as the two academics to be selected as observers with the Australian Government delegation.

Professor Tim Stephens

This is the first time the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has offered this program which allows researchers to attend a major treaty meeting and see first-hand the work of diplomats from around the world.

“Being an observer with the Australian delegation provided me with many insights into how international law is made, on the meeting floor and in the corridors,” Professor Stephens says.

“Many important issues were discussed at this year’s meeting, from Antarctic aviation to bioprospecting and marine protected areas.”

“There were several valuable outcomes, including ongoing work on the Climate Change Response Work Plan. Climate change was a major theme of discussion, as it is becoming clearer every day that Antarctic ice sheets are highly vulnerable to even small increases in global temperatures.

“China, as the host of the Antarctic Treaty meeting, was clearly seeking to showcase its growing interest in the Antarctic and its intention to play a major role in shaping future Antarctic governance.

“I was deeply impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Australian Antarctic Division.

“Australia’s Antarctic Territory covers more than 42 percent of the Antarctic continent and Australia as a claimant and original signatory to the Antarctic Treaty has a major stake in the continued success of this remarkable international regime.”