Jane Rumble

Head of Polar Regions Department, FCDO

Guest blogger for FCDO Editorial

Part of Polar Regions

19th September 2021

Polar Diplomacy

A polar bear on an iceberg in the Polar Regions

The year 2021 marks several anniversaries for diplomacy in the Polar Regions.

Whilst the Arctic and Antarctic are truly ‘Poles apart’, diplomacy for these icy regions shares common objectives of peace, security, sustainability and protection.


The Antarctic Treaty marked 60 years since its entry into force on 23 June 2021. The Treaty Parties marked the occasion with a Declaration recommitting themselves to enduring peaceful cooperation on Antarctic matters. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Treaty was signed 30 years ago this year, on 4 October 1991. This agreement was a landmark of its time. It sets aside Antarctica as a natural reserve and prohibits any commercial mineral extraction. There is a common media myth that the Treaty or its Protocol expire on 2048. This is not true. Whilst this date may trigger the possibility of a review to the Protocol, its mining prohibition could not be overturned without the consensus of all Treaty Parties.

As well as addressing the threat of mining in Antarctica, the Protocol ensures that all activities in Antarctica are pre-planned and the potential for environmental harm is assessed and mitigated. It provides a framework for the protection of the most vulnerable species and locations in Antarctica, and protects sites of historical importance, such as the huts of the early 20th century explorers, including Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton. The Protocol is implemented in the UK through the Antarctic Act, which establishes a permitting regime for entry to Antarctica, administered by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) celebrates its 40th year in force next April, but it is due to celebrate its 40th meeting later this year. This Convention provides the management framework for the Southern Ocean that spins cold water around Antarctica. Its conservation objective allows for some fishing, providing this is managed in a way that does not threaten the populations of bird, mammals and other non-target marine life.

CCAMLR established its first Marine Protected Area (MPA) on the South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf in 2009, following a UK-led proposal. A significantly larger MPA was subsequently agreed for the Ross Sea region in 2016. The UK is among a number of CCAMLR Members co-sponsoring further MPA proposals for East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea. The UK also led work on seeking to understand climate change implications on the Southern Ocean and secured agreement to protect newly exposed marine areas following the retreat or collapse of an ice shelf, glacier or ice tongue around the Antarctic Peninsula.


The Arctic Council celebrates its 25th anniversary on 19 September. Unlike the Antarctic Treaty, which is a legally binding instrument setting aside questions of territorial sovereignty over the continent, the Arctic Council was established by a Ministerial Declaration in 1996, reflecting that the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by sovereign states. The Council promotes cooperation and coordination among the eight Arctic States, and six organisations representing Arctic indigenous peoples. The UK has been an observer to the Council since it was established and participated in every Senior Arctic Officials and Ministerial Meeting of the Council over the past 25 years.

The UK has engaged in the work of the Council across a broad range of topics, including ocean acidification, black carbon and methane, marine litter and micro-plastics, conservation of migratory seabirds, changing Arctic weather and climate systems, and the Polar Shipping Code for the safe passage of ships through Polar waters. The UK also delivers the most Arctic science outputs of any non-Arctic State – fourth after the US, Russia and Canada in terms of volume of publications. The UK’s Arctic Research Station at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, has been providing field support to UK-based and international researchers for 30 years.

Polar horizons

The Polar Regions are among the most rapidly warming, and consequentially changing, areas of our planet. They are becoming more accessible and many more countries are seeking to engage in the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty System. 2021 marks a quarter of a century of Arctic and 60 years of Antarctic cooperation. To continue to deliver the objectives of peace, security, sustainability and protection, all countries need to maintain and further enhance their Polar diplomacy. The UK is fully committed to playing its part.