BAN Ki Moon has now been Secretary General of the United Nations for just over ten months during which time he has given the impression of being very busy without actually having been able to chalk up any particular achievement. His visit a few days ago to Antarctica was well-timed and made an important point: that in this relatively virgin territory international law applies and thus far has prevented any premature land-grabs by acquisitive nations. Mr Ban's timing was right because there is increasing interest in the potential for the exploitation of energy reserves and minerals that are thought to lie beneath the ice. The UN has set up a Commission to determine the limits of the continental shelf and to receive bids from countries interested in discovering what resources may be found beneath it. Britain has made a bid for control of one million square kilometres extending from its long-established British Antarctic Territory. Several other countries are making bids which have to registered by May 2009.
The existing treaty governing Antarctica came into force in 1961 and establishes the huge area as neutral territory. It has worked well, with some 50 national scientific research stations working peaceably together; but as energy resources become depleted elsewhere there is certain to be pressure on Antarctica which could lead to disputes and worse. The United Nations is the logical authority to prevent that from happening.