A DESOLATE island in a frozen sea brings the world’s nations together with a new type of agreement: one giving an international commission the right to govern a landmass through unanimous vote. The year was 1912; the subject was the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean. Thereafter, it and the surrounding archipelago were to belong to no nation, its natural resources open to all.
That agreement was no doubt on the minds of the drafters of the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed to much fanfare 50 years ago Tuesday by 12 nations: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union and the United States.
The pact was a remarkable achievement considering the circumstances: it was the height of the cold war and a time of heightened tensions, including an exchange of gunfire in 1952 between Argentine and British expeditions. Seven nations had carved out overlapping territories on the bottom of the earth and had been previously unwilling to cooperate.
Nonetheless, thanks to the treaty, Antarctica was demilitarized, its frozen peaks and glaciers transformed into the world’s largest nature preserve and an international scientific laboratory. The land claims of the seven nations were neither recognized nor disputed — they were “left to die a natural death,” as The Times’s correspondent Walter Sullivan put it — but each keeps a proprietary eye over its patch of tundra.