June 16, 2005

New Laws Make Antarctic Polluters Liable

STOCKHOLM -- The Antarctic's environment will be protected by new rules forcing polluters to clean up or pay up for any contamination after 45 nations reached agreement in Stockholm on Wednesday.

Sweden, hosting a 45-nation Antarctic Treaty meeting, pushed for companies and organizations to be made liable if they cause an oil spill or other environmental disaster in the world's fifth-largest continent.

"If you create an environmental emergency in the Antarctic you have to take action to deal with it ... if you don't do so, someone else can do it for you and present you with a bill," said Don Mackay, former New Zealand ambassador to the United Nations, who led the group working on the agreement.

Around 30,000 tourists visit the Antarctic each year, far outnumbering the scientists working there, and the numbers are likely to increase, threatening the health of a continent seen as a vital indicator of the state of the global environment.

Increasing human activity in the Antarctic means more danger to the environment, like the sinking of the Argentine ship Bahia Paraiso which spilled hundreds of tonnes of fuel into the pristine waters of the Antarctic in 1989.

The agreement will mean stiffer requirements for scientists and tour companies operating in the Antarctic, which covers an area the size of the United States and Mexico combined.

The aim is to prevent disasters happening and, when they do occur, ensure clean-up operations can get started quickly.

The agreement must now be adopted at national level. Reaching a deal has been complicated by the fact that seven countries claim Antarctic territory and others recognize no sovereignty claims to it at all.

The Antarctic became the world's first and only demilitarised continent under a 1959 treaty under which all signatory countries agreed to suspend their claims.

The Treaty organization itself acts as a de facto government.

The 28th Antarctic Consultative Meeting is due to end on June 17.