Antarctica: a continent without borders

The reconceptualization of the passport is in full swing owing to geopolitical and technological developments. Future Citizen Institute previously explained the changing role of passports under international law, and the phenomenon of camouflage and fantasy passports. With our recent focus on technology, we also see the concept of the passport transferred to the virtual realm. As the Estonian concept, known as e-residency, facilitates broader digital access to the EU digital market, Piia Tammpuu and Anu Masso have observed, “it can be seen as an instrument for digitally enabled virtual mobility – an international ‘passport’ to the virtual world”.

The artists and climate change activists Lucy and Jorge Orta have meanwhile coined the virtual “Antarctica World Passport” – inspired by the fact that Antarctica is a continent without borders or citizenship where research is conducted for the common good of humanity. Antarctica is a continent twice the size of Australia and is governed by the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959. Although some of the world’s major countries have claims over parts of Antarctica, it was agreed to set aside the question of sovereignty for the duration of the treaty to allow people to work together there in the interest of peace and science. Through their Antarctica project, Lucy and Jorge Orta explain, they want to “explore the underlying principles of the Antarctic peace treaty, as a symbol of the unification of world citizens”.

The sea ice extent in Antarctica has unexpectedly plunged in recent years, having a major impact on the global climate system and sea levels. The research that is currently conducted on the continent, which has become something of a prestige project among all the world’s major powers, is vital for our understanding of how climate has historically developed. All the major countries have their own ice cores from Antarctica as well as other regions such as Greenland, the oldest ones 800,000 years old, to study what the earth’s climate was like in the past.

Commentators have observed that the consensus-based system of the Antarctic Treaty is under pressure and that the territory is increasingly facing geographical tests, ranging from competition for natural resources, research and tourism. It is unclear what happens when countries violate the treaty rules, which is becoming ever more likely given that “at stake is the last pristine continent, one that contains the world’s largest store of freshwater, huge potential reserves of oil and gas and the key to understanding how quickly climate change will impact the world through rising sea levels”. As the growing economic and strategic interests are raising tension among the members to the treaty, which expanded from the original 13 members in 1959 to the current 54 members, the future of the treaty remains uncertain. The treaty will not technically expire and there is no indication that any of the signatories will challenge the Treaty system, but the environment protocol is expected to come up for review after 2048, which could permit the extraction of resources which is currently prohibited.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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