Tensions among the five nations bordering the Arctic Ocean were defused earlier today when they agreed to let the United Nations rule on conflicting territorial claims that affect a large portion of the world’s hydrocarbon resources.
The United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway said they will work for an “orderly settlement” of the issue and abide by an eventual United Nations decision.
They ended a two-day summit in Greenland with a joint pledge to rely on existing international laws such as the Law of the Sea Treaty to resolve disputes and to co-operate in limiting environmental risks associated with increased shipping and commerce in the Arctic.
The mood of harmony contrasted with a year of heated activity as the countries pressed their claims with a mix of rhetoric, military exercises and Russia’s submarine voyage to plant a titanium flag on the seabed under the North Pole.
Under the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Treaty, coastal states are given sovereignty over the seabed beyond the existing 200-nautical mile zones if that can be established as part of a continental shelf of shallower waters.
Although the United States has yet to ratify the convention, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said Congress will be urged to do so as quickly as possible. He said the U.S. has committed itself to the “orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brushed off as insignificant the flag-planting incident. He said Russia does not “share any alarming forecasts of an expected confrontation between the interests of the Arctic states and the nations beyond the region.
“We firmly believe that all questions arising here should be solved in a civilized manner on the basis of international law through negotiations, Lavrov said.
Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn downplayed concerns of a “resource rush” to the North Pole. He said the five countries are willing to work together to ensure the peaceful and environmentally sustainable development of the North for the benefit of the residents.
“There was a strong commitment to respect the fact that the people of the North, their whole culture and their whole way of life depends on the land and they are open to economic opportunities, but not at the sacrifice of the environment.”
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said the declaration “creates a good political framework for peaceful development in the Arctic Ocean.”
While Lunn insisted there is “no race for the Pole,” Canada is actively drafting a claim that would cover 460,000 square miles and is backing its Arctic sovereignty claims by acquiring eight patrol ships and building two military outposts in Nunavut Territory. It will underpin Canada’s bid to extend its continental shelf to the Lomonosov Ridge, a massive undersea rock formation that stretches about 1,200 miles from the Ellesmere Island-Greenland boundary waters past the North Pole then towards Siberia.
However, Jacob Verhoef, director of the Geological Survey of Canada’s Atlantic division, conceded Canada does not yet have the information needed to measure how far its outer limits might reach. He told Canwest News Service the study of the Lomonosov Ridge, scheduled for publication in a scholarly journal will initially involve scientific information and a second round of research will be needed to confirm the findings.
If that happens he said Canada’s sovereign rights should be established and give Canada the exclusive authority to “explore and exploit anything that is on and below the sea floor.”
He is also leading two seabed mapping projects, costing C$40 million over the next four years -- one along the Alpha Ridge northwest of Ellesmere Island and one in the Beaufort Sea near the Yukon-Alaska border.