Murder in Antarctica: Just Asking Questions

Eric Hall '18

Editor Emeritus


Over winter break I took a cruise to Antarctica. The wildlife and natural wonders were life-changing. I saw glaciers that engulfed whole mountain ranges, and icebergs the size of aircraft carriers. I waded through seas of penguins, tiptoed by snoring elephant seals, and photographed a ballet of breaching blue whales. In law school, people always talk about escaping to nature to find “perspective.” In Antarctica, I took a heavy dose. Grades, the bar, even the law itself felt vanishingly insignificant while I was down there, like warm breath on a glacier.

Regrettably, we’re not in school for marine biology or environmental science. Although I’d love to write about playful seal pups, and calving glaciers, we are law students and this is the Law Weekly. Thus, with some casual research, I discovered that even at the frozen end of the world, where there are no courts, police, or politicians, there is law.

 If this penguin committed murder, who would prosecute? The answer may surprise you. Photo Eric Hall /  Virginia Law Weekly

If this penguin committed murder, who would prosecute? The answer may surprise you. Photo Eric Hall / Virginia Law Weekly

There is no government of Antarctica. Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom each claim a slice of it, but since 1961, the rest of the world has not recognized their claims. In that year, twelve countries—including the seven claim-holders—signed the Antarctic Treaty which continues to govern land and sea south of the 60th southern latitude. The treaty guaranteed that no country would enlarge its claim while it was in effect. Despite having no claims, both the United States and the Soviet Union were signatories on the original treaty, representing remarkable cooperation during the heart of the Cold War. The Cold War hints at the original treaty’s purpose and scope. Its key stipulation provides that Antarctica will be used for peaceful purposes only, and that no military presence can be installed there. Later amendments prohibited member nations from exploiting Antarctic natural resources and protected marine life, but the core of the treaty has always governed the relationship between people and nature in Antarctica. Thus, the primary source of law below the 60th southern latitude offers little to govern the relationships between people and other people in Antarctica.

So what happens when people in Antarctica commit crimes against each other? Is it possible to get away with murder in the most remote location on Earth? The answer appears to depend on who you are and what you’re doing down there.

Most people go to Antarctica on a cruise, like I did. Therefore, in the most likely criminal scenario, a tourist voyages to the bottom of the world, beyond the reach of airports or cell towers to dispose of an enemy or loved one. This is not recommended. If you’re an American on board an American vessel, you generally bring your criminal laws with you as you travel south. In 2010, President Obama signed the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act. The law requires cruise lines to provide passengers a “security guide” that reveals which jurisdiction applies on board. The law also requires cruise ship personnel to report any crimes to the FBI immediately after an incident, and provides criminal and civil penalties for failure to comply. When I asked him, the safety officer on board my ship confirmed (with some suspicion) that he had a pair of handcuffs and a jail he could use for such an occasion. Although data on the incidence of cruise ship crimes are scarce, what happens to such criminals is well-settled and the same no matter where you sail. The more interesting question—and the one savvy killers should be asking—is what happens when someone is murdered on continental Antarctica.

 Potential crime scene Palmer Station. Photo Eric Hall /  Virginia Law Weekly

Potential crime scene Palmer Station. Photo Eric Hall / Virginia Law Weekly

Unfortunately (or fortunately), Antarctic homicide is too uncommon to offer well-settled answers. The Antarctic Treaty offers minimal guidance. And the few examples since its ratification generate conflicting results. The Treaty specifies that scientific personnel and “observers” (officials designated by each signatory to enforce the terms of the treaty) are subject to the jurisdiction of their home country for all “acts and omissions occurring while they are in Antarctica for the purpose of exercising their functions.” The treaty is silent on tourists, however. And regarding scientific personnel, the treaty appears limited to acts that fall within the scope of their employment in Antarctica, i.e. not homicide.

In the year 2000, an Australian astrophysicist mysteriously died after a coughing fit in the middle of the Antarctic winter. He was working on an American Base in territory claimed by New Zealand. Interestingly, the New Zealand authorities investigated. But since the scientist died in the winter, they couldn’t retrieve the body to perform an autopsy until October. Consider that for a moment, the other 50 staff members had to carry on for months not knowing whether a murderer was in their midst! When they finally completed the autopsy, they concluded that the man died from methanol poisoning, but without examining the crime scene it was impossible to determine if it was a suicide, and accident, or the continent’s first recorded murder.

 The author mugs for the camera, thinking little of the legalities that would complicate investigation of his murder. Photo Eric Hall /  Virginia Law Weekly

The author mugs for the camera, thinking little of the legalities that would complicate investigation of his murder. Photo Eric Hall / Virginia Law Weekly

In October 1996, on a huge American base called McMurdo Station that also sits on land claimed by New Zealand, one American cook attacked another with the claw end of a hammer. On American bases, the station chief is commonly deputized as a U.S. Marshal. In this case, he used his authority to arrest the murderous cook, locking him in a supply shed. This time, the U.S. was able to immediately dispatch three FBI agents to investigate and take the cook into custody. Inexplicably, Australia sent a mediator.

Thus, it seems to matter in what season and on which country’s base the murder takes place, but generally, investigating violent crime in Antarctica is ad hoc, and relies on international cooperation. It’s a dissatisfying answer born of the continent’s extreme remoteness and weather, the same conditions that make Antarctica so worthwhile to visit in the first place.

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Eric Hall

ech8vm@virginia.edu