Penguin Diplomacy - the life story of Brian Roberts
polar explorer, Antarctic treaty maker and wildlife conservationist

Antarctic Treaty


Brian Roberts and the Antarctic Treaty


The obscure story of Brian Roberts’ role in the creation of the Antarctic Treaty is explored in an article by Steve Heavens in Polar Record. Roberts never claimed to be wholly responsible for the treaty, but he objected that the US State Department seemed to be acquiring the full credit for it, which he thought should go to his colleagues at the Foreign Office in London, especially Henry Hankey, the head of its American Department. He was however sufficiently astute to recognise that it was politically expedient that London’s role should remain obscure and that the treaty should be seen primarily as a US- and not a UK-promoted institution, in order for it to be more acceptable to Americans, north and south.

Roberts’ role became far more public from 1961 onwards once the Treaty had been signed and ratified, and his numerous contributions to the Antarctic Treaty System during the annual or biennial Consultative Meetings are well documented. It is particularly in the field of wildlife conservation that his influence was felt. Without his passionate and persistent promotion of his ideas it is much less likely that the various conservation measures ancillary to the Treaty would have seen the light of day.

Part II of Penguin Diplomacy describes Roberts' postwar Foreign Office years and the progressive buildup over many years to the historic Antarctic Treaty conference in Washington. Part III describes Roberts' life following the  conference, in particular the first eight of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs) held in rotation every one or two years, and which continue to this day. Roberts was often the (reluctant) star of the show, demonstrating considerable diplomatic skill, persuasiveness and personal influence, a starting point from which the UK has ever since managed to exert a strong presence in international Antarctic matters. Of all the issues thrashed out at the ATCMs it was the conservation of wildlife that Roberts was to make his own. He was acutely conscious of the vulnerability of Antarctic wildlife to human interference, anAntarctic Treaty Meetingd was determined to try to prevent a repeat of the disastrous unregulated slaughter of whales and seals resulting in near extermination during the early 19th and 20th centuries. The huge effort, patience and determination on his part over many years - indeed it was only his obsessiveness that enabled him to overcome other Consultative Parties’ scepticism of the importance of conservation - eventually bore fruit in the Treaty’s legal instruments: AMCAFF (Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora, 1964), CCAS sealing(Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, 1972), and ultimately CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, 1982) - all of which provide the Antarctic with a degree of protection for wildlife unparalleled anywhere else on Earth.

Historians will no doubt continue to argue over the political significance of the treaty, but the full story cannot be told without an appreciation of the seminal role that Brian Roberts played in it. Too often this has been ignored, and this was one of the main motivations for writing this book.