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Who owns the Arctic?

Jess Worth: Why is Arctic sovereignty such a hot topic at the moment?

Michael Byers: It’s a hot topic because the earth is becoming hotter! Climate change is the principal driver of almost every development in the Arctic these days. The main nation-state players are the five countries that actually have coastline on the Arctic Ocean. So: Russia, Norway, Denmark because of Greenland; Canada and the United States because of Alaska.

These five countries have considerable landmass in the Arctic, but the most important thing is that they all front on what will become some very important shipping routes. Also, the ocean is relatively shallow and has considerable fossil fuel reserves. Because of this, the melting of the Arctic sea-ice – changing from an ice-covered ocean to an increasingly ice-free ocean – is changing things. These five countries are immediately affected and potentially have the most to gain.

JW: There is a lot of attention being paid to the Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic islands. What is the controversy about?

MB: The Northwest Passage is a potential short cut from the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska to the North Atlantic off Newfoundland. If this passage were ice-free, it would cut many thousands of miles off the route from the west to the east coast of North America. That route currently goes through either the Panama Canal or around the southern tip of South America.

This Northwest Passage has considerable history, having been the focal point of centuries of European exploration. But when explorers finally found the Passage they discovered that it was choked full of thick ice throughout the year, rendering it of no use as a commercial shipping route. That situation has prevailed ever since, until just the last two years when melting ice created an ice-free passage during the late summer.

The US and Canada have long differed over the legal status of the Passage, with the US claiming that it is a so-called ‘international strait’ – a waterway that connects two areas of the high seas and is open to foreign shipping almost without restriction.

Canada takes a different view, asserting that the Northwest Passage, along with the rest of the waters of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, are ‘Canadian internal waters’ subject to the full force of Canadian law and to which access is not permitted without Canada’s consent. This ‘agreement to disagree’ hasn’t been of much importance because of the permanent presence of this thick hard ice. But in the last couple of years it has come into question as the prospect of foreign usage becomes ever more real. Foreign usage could include foreign oil tankers flying a flag of convenience [where the nationality of the ship’s owner is different from its country of registration] and it could potentially involve security threats, for example if a state like North Korea decided to send a suspicious vessel through the Passage.

One has to stretch a bit to find a security threat! But they aren’t inconceivable. The more immediate threat is an environmental one – in having foreign vessels coming through that do not meet the high safety standards that you would want in Arctic waters, which are unique in terms of their remoteness, the extreme hazards that can occur and the relatively poor quality of ocean charts.

JW: Didn’t it all come to a head when George W Bush made a parting shot in the final weeks of his presidency?

MB: He didn’t make a threat, but in January this year he did sign a directive re-affirming the traditional US position that the Northwest Passage is an international strait. That was not all that helpful. But while there is a legal disagreement, it tends to be overblown, particularly by journalists looking for a headline. The fact is that Canada and the US are partners in NATO, they are partners in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and they are each other’s largest trading partners. There is certainly no prospect of a confrontation. The real threat comes from a flag of convenience vessel that might see that the Northwest Passage is ice-free, decide to take a run through it and therefore prompt action on the part of Canada, which would in turn force the US to pick sides.

JW: Are countries starting to jostle for position over the right to exploit the Arctic’s rich oil and mineral reserves as these routes are opening up?

MB: I want to emphasize that the dominant paradigm in Arctic diplomacy is co-operation. This was reinforced a year ago at a summit held in Greenland at the invitation of Denmark, for all the Arctic countries. That summit was prompted in part by media stories that suggested a conflict was developing, that there was a race to militarize the Arctic and to compete for resources in some sort of zero-sum game where it was winner take all.

This is quite serious mis-reporting. The actual situation is that the Arctic is very large and that five countries have unquestioned sovereignty over most of it, each with their own respective part. So no-one challenges that Canada owns Ellesmere Island. No-one challenges that Russia has very large legitimate claims over its continental mass facing the Arctic Ocean. With respect to sub-sea resources, no-one questions the fact that every coastal state has full sovereign rights out to 200 miles from shore. Right there we have just assigned about 75 per cent of the Arctic, unquestionably, to one or other of the five coastal states.

Further to that is the UN Law of the Sea Convention under which states can claim further out if they can demonstrate that the seabed is a ‘natural prolongation’ of the continental shelf closer to their shore. There is a detailed science-based mechanism for doing this based on the shape and mineral characteristics of the ocean floor. This process is now under way. So this summer Canada and the US are partnering with two icebreakers (one from each country) to map the Beaufort Sea. Canada and Denmark have co-operated in chartering a Russian icebreaker north of Greenland. There have been regular technical meetings between scientists from all five countries. So there is an awful lot of co-operation taking place.

JW: Is military activity in the Arctic increasing?

MB: Yes, all five countries are increasing their policing capabilities. They are training soldiers to survive and do search-and-rescue in Arctic conditions, and there are steps being taken in all countries to renew their icebreaker fleets to enforce environmental protection laws and other regulations. But no-one is envisioning a military conflict. The concern is with policing non-state actors. This might be shipping companies or international criminal syndicates that see the Arctic     as a way of smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants to places further south, or terrorist elements that might seek to utilize the Arctic in some way. So you have things like the recent statement from the Norwegian Government saying that they felt no concern whatsoever at Russia’s plans to improve its military capabilities in the north. There is a tendency on the part of some commentators to try to frame this as a new Cold War – but all the relevant governments are actually working successfully together.

What I do worry about is that occasionally one sees national politicians invoking Arctic sovereignty or military threats for domestic, electoral reasons. Politicians from a number of countries have been guilty of this. So, for example, the Russians planted their flag on the North Pole seabed a couple of summers ago. It was a publicity stunt during the presidential campaign. It wasn’t necessary and although it was not illegal it did provoke some unfortunate reporting and certainly a misconception that the conflict paradigm had some validity.

To give another example: Denmark periodically sends politicians to Hans Island – a tiny unpopulated place between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. This is done purely for Danish domestic reasons. It is a relatively risk-free way that they can thump their chests about Arctic sovereignty and pretend that there is a serious dispute with Canada over it. And Canada does the exact same thing. Recently, the Canadian defence minister made a big deal over Russian military aircraft flying in international airspace just north of the Yukon Territory. Some of us read this as an attempt to raise his profile as he was campaigning to become the next Secretary General of NATO – a job he did not get. Again, personal ambition leading a politician to play upon this misconception that somehow conflict is the future of the Arctic. I am concerned about this, because even though it is wrong, it can in certain circumstances become self-fulfilling. If you talk about conflict you can actually create conflict, even though there is none at the present.

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