Chile, Antarctica and the new constitution | Polarjournal
As here at Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile maintains year-round research facilities in Antarctica. Image: Sergio Gonzales Alacron / Wikipedia

As part of Chile’s constitutional reform and the second phase of drafting a new constitution, the U-Antarctica group of university experts has formulated an amendment on the status of Antarctica. The draft constitution will be put to a national vote at the end of the year.

A historic first: in three months’ time, Chile will finish writing the second version of its new Constitution, which could include a reference to the Antarctic territory. Last month, the cross-party Constitutional Council, which deliberates the text article by article, put the subject of Antarctica back on the table. As a result, the academic consultancy group U-Antartica, made up of experts in polar law, reiterated how important it is for Chile that this “special territory” should appear in the Constitution.

Chile defines itself as the gateway to the 7th continent and had claimed sovereignty over parts of Antarctica since 1906, when President Germán Riesco created the Comision Antartica Chilena.

In 1940, President Pedro Aguirre Cerda defined the limits of Chilean territory in Antarctica, including seas, land and glaciers between the 53rd and 90th meridians, west of Greenwich. This includes the Antarctic Peninsula and extends as far as the South Pole.

In 1948, President Gabriel González Videla defended this claim in a speech that unified the country from the Atacama Desert to the South Pole. “It was important for the inhabitants of southern Chile to be considered as being at the centre of the country rather than at its extremity”, says Florian Vidal.

Florian Vidal is a researcher in polar policy at the University of Tromsø. Image : IFRI

In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty froze the territorial claims of the seven Antarctic countries. “The claims of three States, Chile, Argentina and the United Kingdom, overlap in the Antarctic Peninsula creating an extremely complicated geopolitical situation,” recalls Florian Vidal. “Officially and juridically the claims are frozen, but still influencing the internal dynamics of each country. Three years ago, for example, the Argentinians published a national map that included the Antarctic Peninsula, which caused a polemic in Chile, but was later toned down by the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs”.

Since the 2000s, Chile has had an Antarctic law – which came into force in 2020 – to regulate its activities on this continent, which until then had been defined by decree, and which is still based on the notion of national sovereignty. The text was drawn up by Dr Luis Valentín Ferrada Walker, currently a member of the U-Antarctica consultancy group.

The U-Antarctica group of experts wants the new constitution to mention Antarctica. The aim is to improve the Antarctic legislative system, to ensure that it is common to all national territories, even if the sense of belonging is stronger in the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctic regions, and to ensure that this territorial claim is maintained.

“This signal might also reflect concerns about other rising powers on the question of Antarctica, such as China, which is increasing its activities in the region,” adds Florian Vidal, “because if it isn’t included it in the constitution, the message could be seen as a renunciation. But on the other hand, taking this step would mean cementing legislation in the constitution, and this could be interpreted negatively by Argentina, for example, as a tougher stance. It’s a delicate balancing act.”

During plenary sessions, radio interviews and articles, U-Antarctica explains that France also mentions Antarctica in its constitution. In fact, article 72-3 on overseas territories stipulates: “The law determines the legislative regime and specific organisation of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories and Clipperton”.

Dr Luis Valentín Ferrada Walker speaking to Radio USACH from the University of Santiago de Chile. BASE / YouTube

In 2022, a national referendum rejected the first draft of the constitution. The lack of consensus forced the government to embark on a second drafting process, with the aim of finding a social contract that would unite all Chileans.

“This rejection reflects an inconsistency between the first text and general national opinion,” explains Florian Vidal. “In Latin America, we’re seeing a trend towards right-wing extremism, and that’s what’s likely to happen in the rewriting of the constitution compared to the first version. The latter was very universal in its vision of the environment and biodiversity, in line with the vision of current president Gabriel Boric. This is now in danger of being discarded. It will probably take on a more sovereignist expression, defended by right-wing parties such as that of former president Sebastián Piñera, but also by people living in the south of the country”.

Meanwhile, the process has resumed in an accelerated form. A commission of 24 politically independent experts formulated a second draft constitution. On June 6, 2023, the commission handed the draft constitution to 50 politicians, mostly right-wing, elected by the people to deliberate the text by vote, approving, refuting or amending each article.

“The references to Antarctica in the first version were not accepted,” says Giovannina Sutherland Condorelli, one of the experts. “The references were criticised for being too long and too specific. The previous proposal mentioned a duty to protect Antarctic ecosystems and biodiversity.

As a result of the rejection of the first version, the current amendments proposed by U-Antarctica involve defining the area claimed by Chile as a “special territory” where the national rights exercised there are restricted by international law.

According to Giovannina Sutherland Condorelli: “The most likely outcome is that this new reference to Antarctica will be taken into account. Our new proposal has been supported by more or less all the political parties.”

“I don’t think they’re not including Antarctica,” comments Florian Vidal, “it would be a break with Chile’s political and diplomatic line, which defines itself as a peaceful and polar South American power, which would also defer questions about the status of the Easter Islands. Interestingly, Chile is trying to formulate a consensus and create a society, while Antarctica shows a political break between two different readings of the issue, which doesn’t really exist in Argentina either.”

At the end of the year, Chile will have to choose between the new constitution or the 1980 text.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to the U-Antartica page

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