The Disputed Arctic

The U.N. Convention on the High Seas, which was ratified in 1958 and replaced by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, stated the obvious: The world is changing, and the human race is beginning to cultivate the ocean’s depths, seabed and subsoil. This ocean is the same treasure trove that civilization sought to conquer in the mid-20th century but stopped, having decided not to resort to war and conflict between countries, but to instead resolve the question of the zone of influence on the basis of objective scientific data.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea was the first time the matter of determining the characteristics of the depths, seabed and subsoil of the areas of the shelf (the shallow sea) — which were most interesting from the point of view of their industrial cultivation — was taken from the sphere of war and political strength to the sphere of scientific investigation, geological and ecological research, and that subsequent discussion of the results in relation to the U.N. Commission was presented not by generals or lords, but by doctors of science. It was this same scientific council that as recently as March 2014 established Russia’s complete right to the central part of the Okhotsk Sea, which is rich with fish and other sea resources.

Encompassing more than 20,000 square miles and resembling a finch, this huge area was not under Russian jurisdiction and was considered “open sea” until 2014. Prior to that, it was used by poachers from other countries who carried out unregulated fishing inside of the “finch.” Now, after the U.N. Commission’s most recent decision regarding the shelf, the Okhotsk Sea will forever be Russian territory, down to the last square mile.

The situation in the Arctic is more complicated now. The discussion is no longer just about the transformation of the former “no man’s sea” into one country’s exclusive national jurisdiction, as today Russia, Denmark, Canada, Norway and the U.S. are all laying claim to the riches of the Arctic. Furthermore, America’s stance is drastically different from those of the other Arctic countries. The U.S. did not sign the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, preferring instead to prove its right to the continental shelf in the old way, by utilizing “right of might” and “gunboat diplomacy.” The European Union took a similar position in regard to the Arctic question, with representatives insisting on the exclusion of the Arctic from the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea regulations.

However, it is worth noting that this stance has recently found less support throughout the world. The attempt to remove the Arctic from consideration within the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea framework sets a dangerous precedent for the selectivity of international law. Russia’s staunch position in this case is not only upheld by Russian interests in the Arctic; it also opens the way for applications from Denmark, Canada and Norway, who are all laying claim to significant portions of the Arctic shelf and the open sea above it, including parts that were included in Russia’s claim to the shelf based on scientific data. Furthermore, it has become evident that the United States, seeing Russia’s activity in regards to the Arctic question, has realized that Russia’s success in obtaining rights to the Arctic shelf will inevitably result in retaliatory steps from Denmark, Canada and Norway. The U.S. is now preparing its own claim to the Arctic shelf for the U.N. Commission in 2020, despite the fact that the U.S. did not sign the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982.

Maybe the U.S. can prove its rights in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by using aircraft carriers, but in the Arctic Ocean, atomic icebreakers, research vessels and deep sea bathyscaphes are more important — as is the U.N. Commission on the shelf.

What does the revised Russian application contain?

In its claim to the continental shelf, Russia has included an area of more than 46,000 square miles beyond the 200-mile and 350-mile exclusive economic zone, which includes the Lomonosov Ridge, the Mendeleev Ridge and the Chukchi Cap.

Russia’s bid for the Chukchi Cap caused concern in the U.S., as the cap is located next to Alaska, which serves as America’s future path to the Arctic. Yet Americans still do not have maps as accurate and detailed as those produced by Russian research. Because of this, America’s intention is to block Russia’s application to the U.N. Commission either covertly, or by direct pressure.

On the other hand, the specified continental structures run from Russia to the Canadian and Danish side of the shelf, which means that it would be possible to extend the shelf on both sides. If such a model of the seabed were approved, then it would also be possible to geometrically divide the ridge between two to three countries by simply counting an equal number of miles away from their shores. Unfortunately, Russia’s relations with Canada and Denmark, which might otherwise enable them to submit a joint proposal, are in reality far from ideal, with each country in the Arctic basin fighting for itself. At any rate, Russia’s interests do not conflict with those of either Canada or Denmark, as all three countries wish to extend their shelf to the pole.

Only time will tell what the U.S. will do with regard to its “special position” in the Arctic.

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