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,
and 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 (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.