The Changing Dynamics of the Arctic — Fight for Sovereignty

Owing to climate change, the notion of sovereignty in the Arctic region has been challenged. The impact of climate change upon the Arctic has not only resulted in environmental and sociological change in the region but has also increased access in the region. Therefore, the once pushed aside region in the 20th century as far as regulations of international affairs were concerned is now gaining global attention because of its richness in resources, oil and gas.

Arctic is not just limited to the territorial limits of the Arctic Ocean. It connects the frontiers of the North America, Eurasia and Asia Pacific. The question of sovereignty has always haunted the Arctic and is deeply rooted in its unstable geophysical characteristics. Hannes Gerhardt in his work “Contested Sovereignty in the changing Arctic” reflects on the history of sovereignty in the Arctic which is based on the materiality the region possesses. Historically, Arctic has seen variations in the practice of sovereignty as it is being governed by various non Arctic regions. For instance, the British sovereignty was exercised by means of The Hudson Ba’ Company which exercised autonomous territorial control in the Canadian Arctic region. The 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty though restricting economic control over economic resources, had given Norway sovereignty over Svalbard. Many more instances such as of Barents Euro-Arctic Region which consisted of northern indigenous people asserting circumpolar bonds, crossing state borders complicating sovereignty and bringing in the involvement of state, non-state and suprastate actors. Therefore the history of sovereignty has always rested on the multifaceted material aspects of the region.

The Arctic affairs have traditionally been handled by the coastal states whose lands abut the Arctic Ocean. The legitimacy of the maritime zones and status quo of the Arctic was challenged by the developments of the international laws which was framed by the law of the sea in 1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea and further the formation of 1982 United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (LOSC).

The UNCLOS was created to handle various aspects of international maritime law such as territorial claims, marine claims. pollution , mineral extraction etc. It rests on the acceptability of international common law.  The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was formulated which encompassed the coastal state’s ability to claim either 200 nautical miles of EEZ or up to 350 nautical miles of continental shelf (shallow area of the continent submerged under sea) to come under the sovereignty of the respective state. In 1996, Arctic council was established in the Ottawa Declaration between Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and the United States as a means of peace and cooperation. The Arctic Athabaskan Council, an organization of indigenous people residing in the Arctic region can maintain permanent participation in the council but are not the members. This body is now represented by 45,000 people from within the region.

The Arctic Council was formed as a cooperative body to produce policy. But the Arctic Council chooses to be silent on issues regarding territorial claims or shipping rights. One attempt to address the territorial claims among the coastal nations was held in 2008 in Ilulisat, Greenland. The Conference featured five states; Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark and the United States. The result of the conference was the Ilulisat Declaration that made the five states to pledge for cooperation environmental cooperation and transparency. However there was no consensus on the overlapping territorial claims which until today remains unresolved.

Initially, not all the Arctic States paid much attention to claiming their rights over the given region since the Arctic Ocean covered with ice most of the seasons. The slow developments in the region owing to global warming and melting of glaciers raised the Arctic issues as some states began the negotiation of their respective maritime boundaries. Donald Rothwell in his research in “The Brown Journal of World Affair” discusses contemporary Arctic issues such as the rising continental claims which challenges the notion that they will converge in the Central Arctic Ocean which will result in the need of resolutions of overlapping claims because of states claiming additional maritime boundaries. The other challenge discussed is the melting Arctic Oceans’ glaciers which would have implications on the flora and fauna, also impacting the lifestyle of the indigenous people of the North, residing in adjoining continents.

The Arctic according to the U.S. Geological Survey Review 2008 is a home to 22 % of the world’s undiscovered oil inclusive of the 200 nautical mile rights as per the UNCLOS treaty. Each nation is alarmed by the presence of the natural resources and is doing its best to extend its territories all over the region. Nevertheless, the whole territorial battle has been a very peaceful one as each state is using soft power and diplomacy to achieve its respective goal.

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