Disputes in the High North Slicing the Arctic pie

Another contentious issue is exactly how disputed seas should be carved up. This is already causing disagreement between the United States and Canada in the Beaufort Sea, and between Russia and Norway in the Grey Zone of the Barents. It is also creating tension among the 'Arctic Five' as they decide how to divide up the rest of the Arctic Ocean that lies further north.

Since the late 1940s, international lawyers have looked to the 'median line method' to divide disputed waters. The 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf, for example, argued that the borders should be drawn according to the length of a country's coast; in other words, that every point of a median line is equidistant to the nearest point on the coast. This approach, which is easy and convenient to apply, was the starting point for the ICJ on each of the occasions when it has considered the vexing issue of how to deal with overlapping continental shelves.

But a coastal state might also have legal grounds to claim territory around a pole on a 'sector' basis (Map 4). This approach allows them to claim a pie-shaped area that is formed by drawing lines that run from its coasts to the pole. In other words, a disputed area is cut like a cake. This is not a recent legal invention but instead has long-standing historic roots. When Canadian explorers first staked their claim to parts of the Arctic in the late nineteenth century, they claimed that their country owned everything between the 60th and 141st meridians of longitude all the way to the North Pole. Canada's most famous early proponents of this approach were Senator Pascal Poirier, in the early twentieth century, and Captain J. E. Bernier, who took 'formal possession' of the whole Arctic archipelago on 1 July 1909 by placing a plaque on Melville Island that still reads:

This Memorial is erected today to commemorate the taking possession for the DOMINION OF CANADA of the whole ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO lying to the north of America from long. 60°W to 141°W up to latitude 90°N.5i

Other countries have also favoured this approach. In 1926, the Soviet authorities had decreed that their national border ran northwards from the city of Murmansk to the North Pole and then headed straight back down into the middle of the Bering Sea.54 They declared that this triangular segment of the Arctic belonged to Russia and represented its natural sphere of influence. The Central Executive Committee then issued a formal decree that incorporated these claims.

Moscow based its claim to the Arctic on the sector principle when it first submitted its case to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2001, even though it actually has little to win or lose from either approach. By contrast, the United States and Norway have a great deal to gain from the sector method, while the median line principle strongly favours Canada and Denmark, almost doubling what they would expect to win under the alternative approach. This is ironic because, in order to stake its claim over the islands of the Northwest Passage, Canada had once found the sector principle more convenient.

These different approaches to the demarcation of borders illustrate how challenging some of the disputes in the Arctic might turn out to be. Fortunately most of these future disputes are likely to be resolved peacefully. Most of the Arctic countries are peace-loving and have neither the will nor the means to wage war against each other. There are two places where Denmark and Norway have long disagreed about where their maritime borders should be drawn. One is north of the Svalbard archipelago, in the waters of Western Nansen Basin that lies close to Greenland. The other is the so-called 'Banana Hole' that lies in the midst of the Norway Basin, the Lofoten Basin and the Greenland Sea, and where the two countries, and Iceland, have made overlapping claims about where their outer continental shelves lie (Map 5). Both countries, as well as Iceland, have amicable relations. In 2006, Denmark and Norway agreed not to obstruct each other's subsequent efforts to prove to the UN that their continental shelves extend into these disputed areas.55

But it remains possible that another country, most obviously Russia or the United States, might calculate that it has more to gain by using military force to seize disputed regions. A region rich in energy resources, or which has a superb strategic setting, could conceivably make a very tempting target.

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