Russia was one of the first nations to claim the untold, untapped riches lurking beneath the ice and water. In 2007, Russia attempted to claim the undersea region of the North Pole by placing a titanium version of their country's flag on the seabed 4,200m (14,000ft) below the North Pole.
Canada has disputed Russia's claim. The United States has sent a Coast Guard ship to serve a joint mission with Canada to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska and map the ocean floor. This data would be used for oil and natural gas exploration.
Britain's International Boundaries Research Unit has recently published a new jurisdictional map of the Arctic, complete with geographic and legal definitions overlayed.
Norway, Denmark - every arctic country wants a piece of the action.
What are the issues?
There issue involved here is international law relating to territorial sovereignty as expressed along coastlines.
What is the governing international law?
Unlike Antartica, the arctic regions of the north have no single treaty governing ownership and use.
Russia's planting of their titanium flag may seem like a blatant terra nullius land grab, but it was not. The accompanying statements to this event made it clear that Russia was attempting to make a claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty.
UNCLOS is a convention that defines specific legal terms, duties, and responsibilities for all nations with ocean coastlines. It is meant to replace the customary law governing the oceanic borders of nations. UNCLOS specifically defines what powers a nation state can exercise in territorial waters, how territorial waters are defined, and created the concept of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) where the coastal nation has sole exploitation rights over all natural resources in that zone.
A nation's EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the low-water mark of a nation's coast or for the length of the state's continental shelf. The treaty allows states to control whichever distance is greater.
So, it becomes very important to determine if your coast has a continental shelf and how far it extends. A broad shelf gives a state more area and resources to utilize.
This is why the U.S. and Canada are proceeding with high-tech mapping expeditions in the polar regions. They're trying to grab more territory, just like the Russians were trying.
Countries are not allowed to claim that their continental shelf extends beyond the 200 mile limit. Instead, the U.N.'s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) helps determine the actual distance of a country's EEZ by examining claims by member states.
The CLCS was created as by Article 3 of Annex II of UNCLOS.
Surprisingly, the U.S. is a signatory of UNCLOS, but has failed to ratify the treaty in accordance with it's Constitutional process. This means that the U.S. is not a full member to the Convention. Still, U.S. officials have announced that they will treat UNCLOS as customary law. The Bush administration has also urged the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty – with some reservations.
With every nation possessing an arctic coastline either signing UNCLOS or admitting that it is binding international law, this treaty governs how territorial disputes in the polar sea region will be resolved.
What does this mean for the reader?The good news is that everyone gets something. Using UNCLOS as the deciding law in this matter means that every nation with an arctic coastline will get some benefits. The British jurisdictional map mentioned above is probably a close approximation of how the upcoming territorial disputes will shake out.
Happily, no one is talking about using military solutions to claim territory in the Arctic Circle.
The Rule of Law works.
The true long term question is, "Does the adherence by these states to international law in this conflict strengthen the case for using international law in the future?"
I think the answer to this question is, "It depends."
There are several factors that contribute to why the interested states are relying on international law in this conflict:
- There is already existing international law that binds all the interested parties. UNCLOS governs.
- The rewards in this conflict are speculative. No one knows just what resources are available and if they exist in sufficient concentration to be profitably exploited. Why spend money, military resources, and political capital on riches that may not even be there.
- On the other hand, the potential resources are too large to ignore. Failure to stake a claim could be an incredibly costly mistake.
- It's friggin' cold up there. I mean seriously cold - not even navigable during parts of the year due to the ocean freezing over. The costs to keep men and equipment functioning up there are staggering, even with global warming helping to cut costs. Sometimes, it's just cheaper to talk rather than fight.
In a sense, the arctic nations are playing the lottery rather than robbing a bank. Both may get a person a large amount of money, but playing the lottery only means you lost a few dollars if you pick incorrectly. Robbing a bank will get you despised, hunted, and possibly shot.
Which course would you prefer your country take?