Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geography and Jurisdiction in the Maritime Arctic

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geography and Jurisdiction in the Maritime Arctic

Article excerpt

Early in the twenty-first century, it became clear that the effects of technological advances and climate change would make the Arctic Ocean increasingly accessible to human activity. Informed by stories of new trade routes and the promise of extensive new energy resources, the public became enthralled by stories of Arctic riches and environmental threats. A view of the Arctic as an untamed and unclaimed wilderness gave rise to fears of land grabs and regional conflict.

The early forecasts of a "new cold war" have been proven wrong and the opening of the Arctic has proceeded with little incident. This has been due in large part to the international legal regime of the sea adopted in 1982 and its application to the specific, and sometimes unique, conditions of the Arctic.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (the "Convention") is the fundamental international agreement governing Arctic maritime space. All Arctic states, with the exception of the United States, and all non-Arctic states that engage in activities in the Arctic are parties to the Convention. The United States accepts the Convention as representing customary international law in most matters and every president since 1994 has sought Senate advice and consent for accession.

The important role the Convention plays in the Arctic was recognized by the five Arctic Ocean coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States) in a declaration made on May 28, 2008 during their meeting in Ilulissat, Greenland:

Notably, the law of the sea provides for important rights and obligations concerning the delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf, the protection of the marine environment, including ice-covered areas, freedom of navigation, marine scientific research, and other uses of the sea. We remain committed to this legal framework and to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.

This framework provides a solid foundation for responsible management by the five coastal States and other users of this Ocean through national implementation and application of relevant provisions. We therefore see no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean. We will keep abreast of the developments in the Arctic Ocean and continue to implement appropriate measures. (Ilulissat Declaration 2008)

The United States reinforced this view in a 2009 statement of its Arctic Region Policy:

The Arctic region is primarily a maritime domain; as such, existing policies and authorities relating to maritime areas continue to apply, including those relating to law enforcement. (Bush 2009)

The Convention provides a body of public international law that is global in scope and comprehensive of maritime issues. Comprising 320 articles in 17 parts with 9 annexes and more than a decade of negotiating history, it is a complex document that codifies customary law and creates new law to address issues unresolved by customary practice. It is structured on geographically defined maritime zones with rights and obligations of states defined for each zone. It is proving to be especially relevant to the increasingly accessible maritime Arctic. However, its complexity also provides opportunities for misunderstandings exacerbated by the melding of the language of geography and geology with that of diplomacy and international law. The Convention is not a final product. In cases where issues are still evolving, the Convention provides principles and processes to guide the development of additional agreements consistent with the Convention at a regional level or in specialized organizations.


While accounting for less than 3 percent of the world ocean, within its 14 million [km.sup.2], the Arctic Ocean includes all of the maritime zones and most of the special geographic features that are addressed in the Convention (Oxford 2007). …

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