With climate change making the Arctic gradually more accessible, some observers have suggested that interest in Arctic natural resources and disputed marine borders could take on a military aspect. A new study by researchers of the Fridtjof Nansens Institute (FNI) in Norway refutes this view, finding that dispassionate diplomacy is a more likely and rational way of dispute resolution than military confrontation.
"Contrary to the general picture drawn by the media and some commentators over the last couple of years, the Arctic region does not suffer under a state of virtual anarchy. The era when states could claim rights to territory and resources by simply planting their flag is long gone," says a law of the sea expert Øystein Jensen, one of researchers behind the study. He refers to the 2007 Arktika expedition that planted a Russian flag into the seabed below the North Pole point, an event which raised concerns in Arctic capitals, and sparked off a round of media reports on an "Arctic race for territory and resources."
"The basic fact here is that the Arctic Ocean is an ocean, and as such, regulated by the law of the sea. Previous tendencies to question the legal status of the Arctic Ocean as a sea area -- due to it being predominantly ice-covered -- stand no chance of being accepted today. At the outset, there is thus no support in international law to treat the waters of the frozen North differently from other maritime spaces," Jensen stresses.
"Notably, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea -- the relevant legal framework for national legislation in most state-to-state relations today -- contains a clause reserved especially to ice-covered waters. The Convention thus leaves little doubt that a broad consensus exists as to the question of the applicability of the law of the sea to all parts of the Arctic Ocean," he explains.
This was confirmed at the Ilulissat summit in Greenland in 2008 where all the Arctic coastal states -- including the US, not yet a party to the Law of the Sea Convention -- recognized the law of the sea as the starting point and a solid foundation for how regional and outside actors should act in the Arctic.
"Since the issues some call 'security policy challenges' are, in fact, already largely regulated by international law that most states find it to their benefit to observe, the room for conflict is limited. Issues and disputes whose resolution procedures are not clearly lined out in international law, are relatively minor. Under a sober realpolitik analysis, trying or threatening to solve these disputes by military means would simply not be worth it, the negative political and legal ramifications would be too large," says political scientist Svein Vigeland Rottem, co-author of the study.
In their study, the researchers have focused on case studies involving Norwegian-Russian relations in the Barents Sea, including delimitation of unresolved maritime boundaries, the status of the waters and continental shelf around Svalbard and management of marine resources. The results of each of these case studies support the overall conclusion that there is little legal space and little rational role for military conflict resolution in the Arctic.
Although the case studies were limited geographically as well as topically, Jensen and Rottem believe their results are generally applicable to the entire Arctic as it is the same legal framework that applies across the region.
"A description of the situation in the Arctic as an 'armed mad dash for resources' seems not only overdrawn, it disregards the specific contexts of foreign policy and international law," the two researchers conclude.
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