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Speech: McCully - avoid an Antarctic disaster

Hon Murray McCully
Minister of Foreign Affairs

6.30pm, 9 December 2009
Speech Notes

Action needed to avoid an Antarctic disaster

Speech to Antarctic Treaty Meeting of Experts
Grand Hall, Parliament

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the invitation to say a few words to you this evening.

For most New Zealanders, Antarctica is a place of pristine beauty lying just beyond the horizon.

We feel its presence during winter storms, but few of us are lucky enough to get there.

However Antarctica’s splendour has also been the scene of great tragedy.

Less than two weeks ago New Zealanders commemorated the 30th anniversary of the loss of flight TE 901 and its 257 passengers and crew in Antarctica.

Of all the Antarctic Treaty nations, New Zealand has suffered the greatest loss of life through a tourism catastrophe in Antarctica.

We are determined that should never happen again.

Another anniversary has also been observed in the same period, as I’m sure you are all aware.

On 1 December 1959, representatives from 12 nations signed the Antarctic Treaty in Washington D.C.

The Treaty declared that it was in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica should continue “forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes”.

Fifty years on, the Antarctic Treaty is a model of successful international cooperation.

We celebrate the many achievements in science of global significance to have come out of Antarctica.

Today Antarctic science has never been more important in helping us understand the drivers and effects of climate change.

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Like any international agreement, the Antarctic Treaty relies on the continuing support and active engagement of all the countries which have signed up to it.

I was very pleased, therefore, to be in Washington D.C in April this year along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ministers from other Treaty Parties when we reaffirmed there our commitment to the Antarctic Treaty’s objectives and purposes.

Numerous challenges confront the Treaty System, however.

The Parties have a collective responsibility to manage human activities in Antarctica so that they are conducted safely, and have minimal impact on the environment.

I am greatly concerned that unless we take action, there will be a serious maritime casualty involving a tourist vessel in Antarctica, and we will be faced with a humanitarian and environmental disaster.

In the last three years, four tourist vessels have grounded and one has sunk in the Antarctic Treaty area.

Indeed the sinking of the Explorer in 2007 was a wake up call to the Treaty Parties.

We were lucky.

No one was lost in that incident, but the fact that there have not been more serious consequences owes more to good luck than good management.

I do not profess to have any special insights into these events.

I do not know whether they occurred because the rules are too lax, or because the rules are ignored, or a combination of the two.

But I do know that one sinking and four groundings in the space of three years, in the region of the most delicate, sensitive natural environment on earth, is an unacceptable track record.

Clearly, we are on borrowed time.

Which is where you, the experts on Antarctic and maritime affairs; on hydrography and charting; on pollution response and clean-up; on search and rescue, and on the management of tourist activities, all have your contribution to make.

Any constructive steps you can take to reduce the prospect of humanitarian and environmental disaster from a mishap involving a tourist vessel in Antarctic waters will enjoy strong support from the New Zealand government.

I am delighted you have assembled in Wellington for the Meeting of Experts on the Management of Ship-borne Tourism in the Antarctic Treaty area.

There is an excellent level of participation across relevant disciplines, and I hear many valuable papers have been presented today.

This demonstrates your shared commitment to find solutions.

I will follow your efforts with interest, and wish you every success in your important work.

Thank you.


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