Race for the Arctic: Let the North Pole be a pole of peace

Dr Paul Berkman

Factors unique to the North Pole make it difficult to frame treaties that will benefit the countries and people of the Arctic region and provide guarantees of peaceful coexistence. Climate change meanwhile is creating further causes for concern regarding the need for cooperation. With some countries putting national claims above common interests, the pursuit of stability and beneficial development in this region will require considerable statesmanship.  

On 1 December 1959 – at the height of the Cold War – the USA and the Soviet Union, along with ten other nations, agreed to the Antarctic Treaty, establishing that “it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. 

Almost three decades later, on 1 October 1987 – as the Cold War was ending – the last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, made the suggestion: “Let the North Pole be a pole of peace.” And he went on:

“The community and interrelationship of the interests of our entire world is felt in the northern part of the globe, in the Arctic, perhaps more than anywhere else. For the Arctic and the North Atlantic are not just the ‘weather kitchen’, the point where cyclones and anticyclones are born to influence the climate in Europe, the USA and Canada, and even in South Asia and Africa… The potential of contemporary civilisation could permit us to make the Arctic habitable for the benefit of the national economies and other human interests of the near-Arctic states, for Europe and the entire international community.” 

The fundamental differences between the Arctic and Antarctic make it inappropriate for the kinds of legal institutions in the two polar regions to mirror each other, as is made clear by the comparisons in the table on page 16. Nonetheless, the concept of peace is always relevant, and it now requires true statesmanship to chart a course of lasting stability in the Arctic Ocean for the benefit of all. 

The landmark speech by President Gorbachev set in motion an era of unprecedented cooperation among allies and adversaries to establish the International Arctic Science Committee, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, the Arctic Council and other initiatives that remain relevant to resolving the global opportunities and challenges in the Arctic Ocean as it changes from a permanent sea ice cap to a seasonally ice-free sea. 

There is an option for heads of state to articulate their common interests in sustainable peace across the centre of the Arctic Ocean with respect to the Law of the Sea – to which all of the Arctic coastal states (namely Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the USA) “remain committed”, as they noted in their 2008 Declaration, signed in Ilulissat, Greenland. 

Common issues regarding the Arctic Ocean already reflect an understanding of shared interests among the Arctic states, indigenous peoples and other stakeholders, but they are not yet comprehensive. For example, the use of the term ‘peace’ as a common interest in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration was specifically excluded. And at Ilulissat in 2008, the five Arctic coastal states promoted their “stewardship” role while emphasising their “sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in large areas of the Arctic Ocean” without explicitly identifying peace as a common interest. 

The missing ingredient is statesmanship by the leaders of nations – the only individuals in a position to establish the political will to both promote cooperation and prevent conflict in the Arctic Ocean for the benefit of all. 

This is not to say that peace is altogether excluded. The 2009 Tromsø Declaration of the Arctic Council confirms that, in international relations, the rule of law is a prerequisite for peaceful regional development. Similarly, the Council’s 2011 Nuuk Declaration recognises “the importance of maintaining peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic”. But peace and stability in the Arctic region have yet to be identified explicitly and publicly as a common Arctic issue among all states and peoples; only by doing this will the world see that the Cold War has ended in the Arctic once and for all. 

To achieve stewardship in the Arctic Ocean, the challenge is to balance interests, rights and responsibilities both across and beyond sovereign jurisdictions. The acknowledgement of the Law of the Sea as the umbrella legal framework for managing human activities in the Arctic Ocean is a starting point. This refers to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international agreement that the US has yet to ratify but which is in force for all other Arctic states and more than 155 nations around the world. “With due regard for the sovereignty of all states”, UNCLOS provides “a legal order for the seas and oceans which will facilitate international communication, and will promote the peaceful uses of the seas and oceans, the equitable and efficient utilisation of their resources, the conservation of their living resources, and the study, protection and preservation of the marine environment.” 

National policies further reveal individual commitments. For example, the USA and Russia each adopted policies in 2009 regarding their sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the Exclusive Economic Zone and the continental shelf emanating from their respective coastal boundaries. But these national policies are without reference to the international sea zones beyond sovereign jurisdictions – namely the ‘High Seas’ beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone, and the area of the deep sea beyond the continental shelf (see Figure 1). The lasting value of UNCLOS is its international and inclusive framework that considers the rights and responsibilities of all nations with regard to all ocean areas across the earth, including the Arctic Ocean. 

In some locations, the High Seas may overlie a continental shelf, as is the case in the Arctic Ocean. Indeed, following recommendations in 2009 from the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), instituted under UNCLOS Article 76, Norway has been acknowledged to have a continental shelf that extends beyond 200 nautical miles in the Arctic Ocean. Additional submissions to the CLCS are pending from Russia, Denmark and Iceland. Meanwhile, proposals and activities like the 2007 public-private expedition to plant a Russian flag on the sea floor at the North Pole clearly and publicly demonstrate national interest among the Arctic coastal states. The world seems to be watching the Arctic Ocean being sliced into pieces of a geopolitical pie. 

In considering ways to shore up peace in the Arctic Ocean, it is useful to draw a clear distinction between the sea floor (Figure 2a) and the overlying water column (Figure 2b). Ecologically and legally distinct, the sea floor and overlying water column reveal alternative jurisdictional configurations for Arctic and non-Arctic nations alike to share in strategies that can both promote cooperation and prevent conflict in the Arctic Ocean. 

In the Arctic, the High Seas are defined and delimited without dispute in the central Arctic beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones, and are accepted by all states either as parties of UNCLOS or through customary international law. Even if the sea floor all the way to the North Pole was to be defined as continental shelf, there would still be High Seas in the centre of the Arctic Ocean as an undisputed, unambiguous and perpetual international space. 

Common interests in the Arctic are long-standing, as illustrated by the 1920 Treaty Concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen that established an “equitable regime, in order to assure their development and peaceful utilisation… which may never be used for warlike purposes.” By the time the Treaty came into force, there were 23 signatories that included all of the Arctic states except the Soviet Union (which acceded in 1935) and Iceland (which was the most recent to accede in 1994). Today, there are 42 parties to the Treaty, involving all continents with indigenous human populations.

Spitsbergen at once reflects the interest of the global community both in its participation and its conceptual design to prevent conflict in the Arctic Ocean. 

Arctic Ocean stewardship requires balanced perspectives. The coastal states have central rights and responsibilities in the Arctic Ocean from their jurisdictions towards the North Pole. Without contravening the “sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” of the Arctic coastal states, the international community has rights and responsibilities in the international space of the High Seas, outwards from the North Pole towards the coastal periphery. The dichotomy of rights and responsibilities in the Arctic Ocean, as established by the Law of the Sea, underscores the challenge of balancing national and common interests. 

The missing ingredient is statesmanship by the leaders of nations – the only individuals in a position to establish the political will to both promote cooperation and prevent conflict in the Arctic Ocean for the lasting benefit of all. Such statesmanship appears rarely to show the vision needed to offer lasting hope for future generations. 

To achieve stewardship in the Arctic Ocean, the challenge is to balance interests, rights and responsibilities both across and beyond sovereign jurisdictions. The acknowledgement of the Law of Sea, as the umbrella legal framework, is a starting point. 

In this age of the Arctic, and amid spiralling international emergencies, “matters relating to the Arctic and the High North must be addressed at the highest political level,” noted Hans Corell, former legal counsel of the UN in his speech, ‘Common Concern for the Arctic’, in Ilulissat in September 2008. 

The call is for global statesmanship to establish a lasting legacy of peace, stability and security in the Arctic Ocean as a common Arctic issue. Building on the vision that President Gorbachev offered in 1987, with the High Seas as uncontested international space in the central Arctic Ocean, could yet enable the North Pole to become the next pole of peace. 

About the author:

Dr Paul Berkman is head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Programme at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, and research professor at Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, University of California, Santa Barbara.


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