Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Seventh Report

British Antarctic Territory

Population: No indigenous population. The UK's presence in the Territory is provided by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which maintains two permanently manned scientific stations (at Halley and Rothera) and two summer-only stations (at Fossil Bluff on Alexander Island and Signy in the South Orkney Islands).

Economy: self-financing through revenue from income tax and the sale of postage stamps and coins.


451.  The British Antarctic Territory (BAT) comprises that sector of the Antarctic south of latitude 60 degrees South, between longitudes 20 degrees West and 80 degrees West. It is located in the coldest, driest and windiest continent in the world. The average annual temperature at the South Pole is minus 49 degrees Celsius. Only 0.7 per cent of the BAT's surface is ice-free. The remainder is covered by a permanent ice sheet of up to five kilometres thick. The highest mountain in the BAT, Mount Jackson, is 3,184 metres high.

452.  In addition to the four research stations maintained by Britain, several other nations (Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Chile, Ecuador, Germany, Republic of Korea, Peru, Poland, Russia, Spain, Ukraine, United States, and Uruguay) maintain stations and bases in the BAT, many on the South Shetland Islands.


453.  The British explorer Captain James Cook first circumnavigated the Antarctic continent in 1773-1775. British interest continued during the 19th and 20th centuries, through the voyages and expeditions of notable explorers, including Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Vivian Fuchs.

454.  The UK made the first territorial claim to part of Antarctica in 1908, by Letters Patent. It has maintained a permanent presence in the BAT since 1943, when Operation Tabarin was established to provide reconnaissance and meteorological information in the South Atlantic Ocean. This 'secret' wartime project, which became the civilian Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey in 1945, became in 1962 the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The BAS is responsible for most of Britain's scientific research in Antarctica. It maintains active links with scientists world wide and is involved in international programmes devised through the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). SCAR provides independent technical and scientific advice to the Treaty System's Consultative meetings. Its permanent Secretariat is based at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge.

455.  By the 1950s, five-sixths of the Antarctic continent was claimed by seven States (Britain, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway). Most of the BAT itself is counter-claimed by either Chile or Argentina. None of the territorial claims was recognised by non-Claimant States; and, to establish a mechanism that would defuse escalating disputes over sovereignty, Claimant and non-Claimant States negotiated the Antarctic Treaty. This was adopted in 1959 and entered into force in 1961. Its objectives are: to keep Antarctica demilitarised, to establish it as a nuclear-free zone, and 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.

456.  Five separate international agreements have been negotiated which, together with the original Treaty and the suite of Measures, Decisions and Resolutions, provide the framework governing all activities in Antarctica. Collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System, the five agreements are:

  • Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora (adopted June 1964)
  • Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (adopted December 1972, entered into force March 1978)
  • Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) (adopted May 1980, entered into force April 1982)
  • Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) (adopted June 1988, but superseded by the Environmental Protocol (see below) and unlikely to enter into force) and
  • Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (adopted October 1991, entered into force January 1998).

By May 2007, 46 States had become Members of the Antarctic Treaty System.

Constitutional Status

457.  Originally administered as a Dependency of the Falkland Islands, the BAT became an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom in its own right by Order in Council on 3 March 1962. It is administered by the FCO and the Commissioner for the BAT is the Director of the Overseas Territories Directorate. The BAT has a full suite of laws, and legal and postal administrations.

Key recommendations

  • We conclude that the Government was right to submit a claim to the UN Commission for the Limits of the Continental Shelf for the seabed around Ascension Island. We recommend that the Government should submit a similar claim for the continental shelf around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. We also recommend that the Government should in its response to this Report state its current policy on seabed claims in relation to the continental shelf around the British Antarctic Territory. (para 427)

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