“In the Antarctic, everybody is on a first-name basis”

05.02.2013 - Article

Interview with Martin Ney, Legal Adviser to the Federal Government on international law issues, who visited a number of research stations in the Antarctic.

The German-South African team
The German-South African team© Martin Ney (AA)

Dr Martin Ney, Legal Adviser to the Federal Government on international law issues and Director General for Legal Affairs at the Federal Foreign Office, visited a number of research stations in the Antarctic between 7 and 30 January 2013 on a joint German South African inspection trip. This is a rare event: the last inspection by a German Delegation was 14 years ago. For the colleagues from South Africa, it was the first ever inspection trip. We asked Mr Ney to tell us about his impressions.

Question: Mr Ney, what is a legal adviser on international law doing in the Antarctic?

Martin Ney: Within the Federal Government, the Federal Foreign Office is responsible for the Antarctic Treaty, because we take the lead on international law. It thus fell to me to head the delegation and set up the parameters for the German South African inspection. However, the inspection would have been completely inconceivable without the input on scientific matters of the Alfred Wegener Institut für Polar und Meeresforschung (AWI) – two AWI staff members were sent on the inspection – and of the Federal Environment Agency.

Inspection team at the Neumayer III station
Inspection team at the Neumayer III station© Martin Ney (AA)

What exactly did you look at?

We inspected four stations in total: the Norwegian station “Troll”, the British station “Halley”, the Indian station “Maitri” and the Belgian station “Princess Elizabeth”. Information gathering visits were conducted at the German station “Neumayer III” and the South African station “Sanae IV”. During an inspection, it is important to see how a station manages its logistics and its energy supply, what research projects are being carried out, whether it disposes of waste and waste water in an environmentally sound manner and whether the Antarctic is being used for exclusively peaceful purposes.

Why is the Antarctic so important to us?

Fifty percent of all sea water comes from the Antarctic. If we gain a scientific grasp of this process and the melting process of the ice, then we can draw conclusions about climate change and its effects, for example. But that is only a tiny part of the scientific research going on there.

How adventurous did you feel there?

I am really glad to be back in Berlin. Flying in the Antarctic is not without its dangers. The plane that we were originally supposed to use there got caught on a snow drift during takeoff and crashed. The replacement plane was a so called “twin otter”, whose sister craft tragically crashed with all its passengers during our time in the Antarctic.

What is life like for the researchers at the stations?

The Norwegian station Troll
The Norwegian station Troll© Martin Ney (AA)

Half of the staff at every station works in logistics: they are communications experts and engineers maintaining equipment, taking care of the energy supply and so on. The other half of the staff is researchers, mostly highly specialized geologists, geophysicists, meteorologists and chemists. All are part of a team; in the Antarctic everybody is on a first name basis. Everybody is dependent on each other, maybe more so than in any other working environment. Accommodation in four bed rooms is the norm, so forget about privacy. And the most important member of the crew is the cook! The food at the German station was marvellous. There were even fresh baked rolls.

And what accommodations did you have?

We had the same as everybody else, warm and simple. But on my last night I did sleep in a tent while it was minus 15 degrees outside.

What did you wear? Normal winter clothing is probably not enough there.

Legal adviser for international law Martin Ney
Legal adviser for international law Martin Ney© Martin Ney (AA)

Without the support of the Alfred Wegener Institut für Polar und Meeresforschung we never would have been able to conduct the inspection. They gave us complete polar outfits.

You conducted the inspection together with a team from South Africa. How was the cooperation?

It was really excellent. South Africa is a really strong partner for us in the Antarctic. We are immediate neighbours there with the stations Sanae IV and Neumayer III, even if we are three days journey apart. On our trip, we formed German South African Teams to check individual inspection criteria and we discussed what issues were particularly important to us.

The Antarctic Treaty is intended to ensure the peaceful and scientific use of the Antarctic. How do you see the prospects for this?

Curious Penguins
Curious Penguins© Martin Ney (AA)

No one calls into doubt the peaceful use of the Antarctic. But there are two big question marks. The one is about how to deal with tourism. It is clear that tourism must be environmentally sound and should only be allowed in a very limited scope. We will not be able to preserve the Antarctic as an area exclusively devoted to research, though. A certain amount of tourism is necessary for the long term support of environmental protection in the Antarctic.

The second thing is that there is not only a ban on exploiting the natural resources of the Antarctic, but also on exploration related to them. The ban on resource exploration will expire at some point. I can imagine that some countries are already thinking about how they can direct their research towards future resource extraction.

What role can Germany play?

Germany has a seat at the table with those who make the decisions at the annual meetings of the parties to the Antarctic Treaty. Above all, we have to think about how to deal with the two open questions I mentioned.

Would you like to go back to the Antarctic as a tourist?

After a little break, I would do anything to go back to the Antarctic. (Laughs).

Thank you very much.

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