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The Protocol on Environmental Protection enters into force

On 14 January 1998, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, entered into force. The Protocol was signed in 1991 at Madrid, Spain. For it to be a legally binding agreement, each signing party had to ratify it in accordance with its own constitutional processes. That action was completed on 15 December when Japan, the last party to do so, deposited its instrument of ratification with the U.S. Department of State. (The United States is the Antarctic Treaty's designated depository government.) Entry into force takes place 30 days after the last Party ratifies.

The Protocol builds on the Antarctic Treaty to provide a comprehensive system to protect the antarctic environment and its associated and dependent ecosystems. It designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science. The Protocol also establishes a new committee, the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP). This committee is charged with providing advice and recommendations to the Treaty parties in connection with implementation of the Protocol. Adoption of the rules of procedure for the CEP will be a primary focus of the next Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting to be held in Tromsø, Norway, in early June of this year.

Among the provisions of the Protocol is a ban on all activities related to mineral resources except for scientific research. The Protocol also commits parties to environmental impact assessment procedures for planned activities, both governmental and private. It enhances the protective measures accorded to fauna and flora and imposes strict limitations on the disposal of wastes and discharge of pollutants, both land based and ship board. Changes to the terms used for designating protected areas are included in one of the annexes to the Protocol, though adoption of those changes must be made separately by the Treaty parties.

The United States, through regulations that were issued under the Antarctic Conservation Act, has been complying with most of the Protocol even prior to its entry into force. The United States completed its ratification with passage of the Antarctic Science, Tourism and Conservation Act of 1996, signed into law on 2 October 1996. Among the regulatory changes that have been made since then are specific requirements for environmental impact assessments for nongovernmental expeditions sponsored by U.S.-based companies and requirements for ships traveling to Antarctica to have plans that will provide for prompt and effective response to oil spill emergencies. Additional pending changes to the U.S. regulations are in the protected area system. Areas currently designated as either Specially Protected Areas (SPAs) or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) will be designated as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) and renamed and renumbered. The permit system for entry into such areas will remain unchanged.

The full text of the Protocol and its related annexes can be read at New Zealand's "Gateway to Antarctica" World Wide Web site.