Old Treaties Called Into Question as Arctic Competition Increases

December 20, 2016 5:46 PM
Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN-757) during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016. US Navy Photo
Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN-757) during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016. US Navy Photo

The rapidly changing Arctic region will open opportunities for everything from expanded fisheries to shorter trade routes and possible militarization, and the consensus from a panel of speakers is that these upcoming changes will require new international maritime agreements that may make obsolete existing maritime pacts.

Kristine Offerdal, an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, said yesterday at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event that Norway is already seeing a clash between old treaties and more modern maritime rules, and offered that this and other clashes could be instructive as nations try to figure out how to apply new Arctic agreements on top of old ones.

Using the 1920 Svalbard Treaty that gave Norway sovereign control of an Arctic archipelago but grants non-visa entry to other treaty signatories as an example, said “most outstanding issues in the Arctic June 25, 2024 are maritime,” principally related to fisheries and possible mineral exploration.

“When the treaty was developed there was no such thing as a 200-mile economic zone,” which was created under the 1970’s Law of the Sea Treaty, nor was the concept of “extended continental shelf” part of the original agreement, she explained.

Now, Norway claims the 200-mile zone extending from the archipelago, causing Russia to protest by sending its coast guard to enforce the original agreement barring military use of the land.

Offerdal told the audience at the event that the United Kingdom, also an original treaty party, has voiced skepticism over Norway’s possible mineral exploration in the zone under the “extended continental shelf” concept.

Under the original treaty, she said, Norway was only allowed to recover the costs of administering the archipelago, largely through money made from coal mining. She said Norway today is not seeing any economic gain from the archipelago itself but rather from the extended continental shelf area.

When the Svalbard Treaty was signed, there were 14 parties involved, including the former Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Today, there are more than 40 signatories, including China and North Korea.

Other agreements, such as the Treaty of Lausanne and the subsequent Montreux Convention, cover another important waterway that can provide some guidance for the future of the Arctic, but they too have limited application in today’s environment, said Nilufer Oral, a member of the law faculty at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

Oral said the Montreux Convention, signed in 1936, gives Turkey control of the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. To reopen negotiations on it or to amend it now “would be opening Pandora’s Box,” she said.

The Lausanne Treaty covered the establishment of modern Turkey and defined its current borders at the end of World War I.

“Turkey has been fulfilling this duty” of keeping the straits open to military and commercial vessels under the convention, she said. But the straits, only 700 yards wide at one point and with 12 turns to navigate “is a rather treacherous blue highway” that has been subject to catastrophic collisions and groundings of large oil tankers.

Russia in the 1990s criticized Turkey’s and the International Maritime Organization’s attempts to create sea lanes to improve safety of navigation in the straits, arguing those moves hurt its economy in the post-Soviet era. The IMO is a U.N. agency that deals with safety and environmental issues at sea.

Oral said Russia reasoned that, while its oil exports – its largest source of foreign revenue – were being subject to the new IMO rules, other countries were collaborating on a pipeline to move oil over land from the Caspian sea port of Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkey’s Mediterranean port cities, helping them avoid the dangerous straits altogether. Despite Russia’s clash with IMO in that case, Oral said the organization remains a “very important institution” to peacefully negotiate complex maritime issues in the Arctic, the Bosporus Straits and Antarctica.

While the Antarctic is “is white and cold like the Arctic,” Alan Hemmings of New Zealand’s Canterbury University said there are critical differences between the two regions, starting with population. At the height of the summer season, Antarctica has about 3,500 residents, while there are many more permanent residents in the North – as well as transient fishermen, scientists, engineers, energy developers and others looking to do business.

In the Arctic, there are still territorial disputes – even between friendly nations like the United States and Canada – that have large economic implications for fisheries and energy in both nations.

But the Antarctic treaty “has defanged” disputes of sovereignty claims on its land and offshore waters, at least until now, he said.

“An extremely active Cold War in the Antarctic was probably never on anyone’s agenda,” he said via a video teleconference call at the event.

The Antarctic treaty first tackled fishing, which Hemmings said is “a relatively easy place to start” and could be a good starting point for an Arctic treaty as well. Mineral exploration, although a more difficult issue in the Arctic, has also been resolved in the Far South.

The “jury is still out on monitoring large activity” beyond scientific presence in a number of areas on the continent itself, he said.

“The building block approval” approach of reaching consensus while leaving “constructive ambiguity” for interpretation by the signatories has worked to date, Hemmings said, but cautioned that tactic may be reaching the end of its usefulness in the Antarctic.

In the Arctic, Offerdal said there are plenty of institutions that could be used to help work through a range of issues. She said among countries who have not signed the Svalbard Treaty or become observers at the Arctic Council, “there is a general sense that something is going on” in the region that they need to participate in for their own future interest.

The need for international cooperation is essential in the Arctic because “no one could have anticipated … the diminishment of the ice [polar] cap” and the rapid advances in technology that make mineral and energy development possible when the Svalbard Treaty was written after World War I.


John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense, GovExec.com, NextGov.com, DefenseOne.com, Government Executive and USNI News.

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