Antarctica is not a country. It does not have the same systems of governance as other countries because there is no permanent population to govern or be governed. This does not mean activity on the continent is unrestricted, however. In addition to being regulated by a complex apparatus of international agreements, there are also territory claims by individual countries.
What is the Antarctic Treaty System?
In 1959, after decades of escalating tensions on the continent, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty. The agreement banned military activity on the continent while establishing freedom of scientific investigation. Since then, more than 200 additional ordinances regarding regulation in Antarctica have been agreed upon. 54 countries are now party to the Treaty and the additional agreements. In 2003, the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat was established to help with administrative tasks. All of these pieces make up the complex governance framework collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS).
Does the United Nations control Antarctica?
Not entirely. ATS falls under the UN system, but it operates fairly independently from it. Only 54 of the 193 UN Member States are party to ATS, and only 29 of those have consultative (voting) status. However, the Treaty does allow for any UN Member State to accede to it.
What countries have claims in Antarctica?
Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom have made claims to territories in Antarctica. Norway has two claims, making a total of eight territorial claims by seven nations. Some countries recognize one another's claims, although none of the claims are universally recognized. Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom all have overlapping claims. The Antarctic Treaty prevents further claims on the continent, but it does change the status of existing claims.
Does Antarctica have a legal system?
No. Antarctica does not have its own law enforcement or courts. If a country violated international law in Antarctica it would be resolved on the diplomatic stage, likely under the authority of ATS.
Individuals in Antarctica are typically subject to the laws in the nation of their citizenship. For example, a South African citizen in an Antarctic research station would be tried in South African courts if they violated their national laws. The jurisdiction is not always clear-cut, however, as can be seen in the suspected murder case in a US station on the New Zealand Antarctic claim.
What will happen to ownership of Antarctica in the future?
As agreed upon in 1998, consultative parties of the Antarctic Treaty will have the option to call for a review of the protocol in 2048, possibly changing or even disbanding it. Even now countries' participation in ATS is at-will, so they could leave at any time. There is no evidence to suggest major shifts will happen any time soon, but rapid changes in climate and technology make a struggle for property and resources in Antarctica an increasingly concerning possiblity.
ATS is a robust and longstanding apparatus that will likely govern Antarctica for years to come, but it is not an absolute guarantee of Antarctica's future welfare. Governments must continue to make choices for the good of the continent, and people must continue to hold governments accountable for such choices.