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Is it Time to Cut the Gordian Knot of Polar Sovereignty?


  • Dr Julia Jabour teaches Antarctic law and policy for the Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies’ Undergraduate, Honours and Masters programmes. She is also Deputy Leader of the Policy Program at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC) and leader of the project ‘Management of Marine Living Resources in the Southern Ocean’. Dr Jabour has been a member of the Australian delegation to Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings on several occasions and has visited Antarctica five times.

    Melissa Weber is a Ph.D. candidate with the Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies and ACE CRC. Her research is investigating the implications of oil and gas development in the Arctic and Antarctic from the Canadian and Australian perspectives. Her previous work investigated Antarctic biological prospecting regulatory options in the Antarctic. Melissa is a Canadian who has lived in the Arctic and visited the Antarctic twice.

    The authors acknowledge the support of the ACE CRC, funded through the Australian Government's Cooperative Research Centres Programme.


There has been recent discussion on the abandonment of sovereignty in the Arctic and territorial and marine claims in Antarctica in the interests of redefining these regions into global commons with joint management. Global commons refers to a region, or group of valued resources, protected from exploitation in the interests of the global population and future generations. While it may be reasonable to examine the possibility of shifting sovereignty in these regions and locking access to any of the resources, an academic examination must not focus on sovereignty in isolation from existing management regimes. Sovereignty is not displaced easily, and nor are sovereign rights; however there is a large capacity for negotiation, consent and agreement towards how resources and areas may be used and enjoyed while maintaining an indifference to existing or exerted territorial and/or marine claims. Sovereignty and sovereign rights can also be preserved, but their utility minimized in the presence of alternative arrangements, as exemplified in the Antarctic Treaty. In the absence of such arrangements, the self-interest of States is manifest. A false sense of probability is fostered by any examination that only considers sovereignty and disregards State practice or current management initiatives. This article demonstrates that the current governance arrangements are legitimate in a dynamic world, regardless of sovereignty, and identifies the lengths to which the stakeholders go to preserve both their national interest and that of the global community in de facto global commons areas. It concludes by offering a view that cutting the Gordian knot of polar sovereignty is both risky and premature in the absence of suitable alternatives.