Two of Canada's top experts on polar politics are sounding an alarm over Britain's plan to claim more than one million square kilometres of seabed territory off the coast of Antarctica - and questioning Canada's official indifference toward the controversial proposal.
The move is expected to provoke rival claims by Chile, Argentina and other nations with an interest in potential Antarctic oil and mineral resources, and is widely seen as a direct challenge to a 50-year-old international treaty - signed by Canada in 1988 - aimed at preserving the frozen continent's pristine environment from commercial and military exploitation.
The British government confirmed this week that it expects to file a claim under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by 2009 for a wide swath of undersea territory adjacent to "British Antarctica" - a disputed, wedge-shaped region of the uninhabited continent associated with British scientific expeditions since the early 1900s.
A Canadian government spokesman in Ottawa told CanWest News Service the British claim has "no implications for Canada."
Britain's proposed UN submission "is in furtherance of the legally established and orderly process under UNCLOS to delineate the outer limits of its continental shelf," Foreign Affairs spokesman Bernard Nguyen added.
"Canada does not have an extended continental shelf or any claims in Antarctica. Canada will not comment on the activities of the U.K. or any other country in Antarctica, a landmass which is regulated by the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty."
But University of British Columbia Prof. Michael Byers and the University of Calgary's Rob Huebert both say the British claim at the southern pole is a worrisome development that merits serious attention from Canada - especially at a time when the Arctic has become a major flashpoint for nations of the Northern Hemisphere.
"I'm a bit disappointed with (Foreign Affairs') response because we are, of course, a party to the Antarctic Treaty, which does give Canada an interest in any activities - particularly any legally questionable activities in Antarctica or in the waters around Antarctica," said Byers, Canada Research Chair in International Law and Politics and author of the national bestseller Intent for a Nation, his manifesto for a more influential Canada on the international stage.
"I hope the Canadian government realizes the importance of the Antarctic Treaty to preserve the fragile ecology of the continent and also realizes the need to not allow territorial disputes of any kind to arise," said Byers.
This summer saw a heightening of tensions over Arctic sovereignty and potential oil riches highlighted by record melting of the polar ice cap, a Russian flag-planting mission at the North Pole seabed and major Canadian investments aimed at beefing up this country's military presence in the Arctic.
Many scientists have lamented the growing international competition over Arctic territory and its considerable oil and gas deposits, holding up the Antarctic Treaty as a better model for managing a multinational, continental "commons" in an era of climate change.
News of the planned U.K. claim in Antarctica has raised the spectre of an Arctic-like struggle over the southern polar region, with British experts predicting a possible end to the Antarctic Treaty and a looming threat to the southern polar environment.
Argentina's foreign minister quickly responded with a vow to revive his country's claims in the region. But a Foreign Office spokesman in Britain told the Guardian newspaper that the proposed UN submission could help prevent "uncontrolled environmental damage" in Antarctica and downplayed the prospect of a "free-for-all, a secret carve-up or competitive land grab" at the South Pole.
"It is indeed setting off a worrisome trend," countered Huebert, associate director at the U of C-based Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
"The spirit of the Antarctic Treaty is very clear - not to divide the continent up in a nationalistic context. I think we should be paying very close attention to what is happening in Antarctica."
Byers called on Canadian officials to meet with their British counterparts to explore "the full meaning and consequences of the British claim."
He added: "It would be a real shame for Canada to pretend that we do not have at least some legal standing on this issue."
When Canada signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1988, then-external affairs minister Joe Clark declared that "Canada is acutely aware of the uniqueness of Antarctica, and will, through accession to the treaty, be better able to work for the protection of its sensitive environment and dependent ecosystems."
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