The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by 12 nations active in Antarctica during the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States and USSR) to establish Antarctica as a region of peace and cooperation.
It came into force on 23 June 1961 and is at the centre of a number of related agreements, which together are known as the Antarctic Treaty System.
The Treaty covers the area south of 60°S latitude. Its objectives are simple yet unique in international relations. They are:
- to demilitarise Antarctica;
- to establish it as a zone free of nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste;
- to ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes only;
- to promote international scientific cooperation in Antarctica; and
- to set aside disputes over territorial sovereignty.
The Treaty remains in force indefinitely. Forty-seven countries have acceded to it. Consultative (voting) status is open to all countries who have demonstrated their commitment to the Antarctic by conducting significant research. Twenty-eight nations, including New Zealand, have Consultative status. The Treaty parties meet each year at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.
The Antarctic Treaty System comprises the Treaty, its Protocol on Environmental Protection (1991), the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (1980) and all the measures, resolutions and decisions adopted annually by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty
The Antarctic-Environmental Protocol (1998) establishes Antarctica as a "natural reserve devoted to peace and science" and provides for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems.
The protocol applies to all governmental and non-governmental activities taking place within the Antarctic Treaty area (south of 60°).
The relevant New Zealand legislation is the Antarctic (Environmental Protection) Act 1994. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is responsible for administering the Act, including the issuing of permits.