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The North Pole in Peril

PARIS – Ever since mankind began to map the world, the north and south poles have fascinated us, both poetically and scientifically. But, save for a few whalers and explorers, not many people ever went to have a closer look. The serene stillness of the Arctic and Antarctic was a perfect match for human indifference. The onset of global warming, however, has changed everything.

Of course, that old indifference was not universal. In a rare spurt of collective political intelligence, and in order to prevent any risk of international conflict, an international treaty was signed in 1959 to govern Antarctica. This treaty dedicated Antarctica to exclusively peaceful aims. It recognized the existing territorial claims, declared them “frozen,” and forbade all physical assertions of sovereignty on the land of Antarctica.

The nature and content of that treaty were purely diplomatic. Only after its ratification did the first environmental issues arise. These were added to a revised treaty in 1972 by a convention on seal protection, followed, in 1980, by a convention on wildlife preservation. Most importantly, a protocol signed in Madrid in 1991, dealt with protecting the Antarctic environment.

As French Prime Minister, together with Australia’s then Prime Minister Robert Hawke, I was responsible for proposing the Madrid protocol, which transformed the Antarctic into a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science for 50 years, renewable by tacit agreement. It was not an easy success. We had to reject first a convention on the exploitation of mineral resources that had already been negotiated and signed in Wellington in 1988, thus risking reopening very uncertain negotiations. We were bluffing, but our bluff worked.