Andrew Darby June 18, 2012
"Antarctica is too important in the global scene to lose to mining or pollution" ... David Bushby. Photo: Reuters
THE Coalition has put its weight behind the world heritage listing of Antarctica, giving a fillip to an environmental cause sharply dividing polar experts.
The extra layer of world heritage protection was ''absolutely necessary'' to stop mineral exploitation of the frozen continent, the Coalition spokesman David Bushby said in Hobart yesterday.
''We believe Australia can promote a co-operative approach with a world heritage nomination,'' said Senator Bushby, the deputy opposition whip.
''Antarctica is too important in the global scene to lose to mining or pollution.''
Senator Bushby was speaking at a symposium timed to coincide with the 50-nation Antarctic Treaty meeting in Hobart, where world heritage nomination is a touchy issue.
Advocates argue it will ensure greater protection against its exploitation, with the treaty's mining ban potentially up for review in 2048. Opponents say it is a distraction from an already powerful regime and could open the door to further United Nations control of the continent.
The federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, did not rule out pushing for a nomination but warned of difficult obstacles.
''The special legal and political status of Antarctica, accommodating the positions of both those countries claiming territory - like Australia - and those which do not recognise such claims, would present significant challenges," Mr Burke told the Herald.
He said it would need agreement by all 28 nations who are the inner decision-making Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties and agreement in the UN to modify the World Heritage Convention.
The ANU international law professor Don Rothwell said the Antarctic Treaty was not as strong as some suggested, while the UN's World Heritage Convention imposed obligations upon all 189 nations that signed it.
''In my view there is no barrier in international law to a state proceeding with a world heritage nomination,'' Professor Rothwell said, adding it was also open to countries to make a joint nomination or for treaty countries to agree between them to push for listing.
''While at the moment the situation is relatively stable, I do have concerns about the future,'' he said. ''The built-in mechanism for review [of the mining ban] will become a looming issue over the next 30 to 40 years.''
The case for a nomination has been pursued by the former Greens leader Bob Brown, who has drawn it to the attention of global figures, including the US President, Barack Obama.
''It does mean it would be very difficult in future for the exploiters … to break down the battlements,'' Dr Brown said.
But in a flat rejection of the case, the former Australian Antarctic Division director Tony Press called nomination ''an own goal in political ice hockey'' because it could actively renew debate on mining in Antarctica.
''Bringing the question of Antarctica back into the United Nations framework is fraught with dangers,'' Dr Press said.
He said the UN had no mechanism to deal with the complexities of Antarctic territorial claims, which are set aside under the terms of the treaty. The World Heritage Convention currently could only accept nominations from a nation for its own territory.