Left out in the Cold: Contemporary Policy and International Property Issues in the Arctic Circle

By Hunt, Thomas | Suffolk Transnational Law Review, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Left out in the Cold: Contemporary Policy and International Property Issues in the Arctic Circle


Hunt, Thomas, Suffolk Transnational Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) purports to govern the territorial rules of the Arctic Ocean. (1) Yet because of the possible existence of trillions of dollars' worth of natural gas and oil resources buried beneath the ocean's icy surface, territorial claims in the Arctic have been hotly contested over the years by the five "Arctic powers": the United States, Canada, the Russian Federation, Norway, and Denmark. (2) Since climate change has continued to melt the polar ice caps at a steady rate, the resources under the ice will soon become far more accessible. (3) As a result, territorial posturing in the Arctic by these five countries, especially Russia, is coming to a perceptible zenith in 2017. (4) This presents policymakers with a number of unique challenges; because despite the phenomenon's close resemblance to the resource and land scrambles characteristic of nineteenth century imperialism, the issue of climate change, i.e., the culpable accelerator of this particular scramble, is an entirely contemporary problem. (5) The United States has recently revamped efforts to catch up with Russia in the area of Arctic exploration, but it remains to be seen how quickly the U.S. government will be able to implement those efforts into actual results. (6)

This Note explores the theoretical and practical validity, and feasibility of international sovereign claims in the Arctic region, and the significant policy considerations related thereto. (7) Part II will discuss the history of such claims over the years as well as their validation, or lack thereof, by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (8) Part III will describe current U.S. and Russian policies in the Arctic, with some emphasis placed on the most controversial issues. (9) Part IV will analyze the possible ways to resolve international tension in the Arctic Circle. (10) Finally, Part V will conclude this Note by emphasizing the importance of international cooperation in this region and the necessity of worldwide accessibility to alternative sources of energy. (11)

II. HISTORY

A. The First Claims in the Arctic: The 1910s and '20s

1. Canada

There are five nations with coastlines in the Arctic Circle, namely Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, and Denmark. (12) Canada's claims to the Arctic are deeply rooted, dating back to nineteenth century English explorers and further exploration by Canada's own navigators after the nation's confederation in 1867. (13) These roots culminated in a Canadian proclamation in 1925 that its government owned all of the land between its land borders and the North Pole. (14) This broad-sweeping method of divvying up the Arctic Ocean was known as "The Sector Principle," an idea which originated in Canada. (15) The Canadians continued this assertiveness into the 1950s, when their government apparently purposefully relocated various Inuit people to the high Arctic for the sole purpose of reinforcing their sovereignty there. (16) Canada has perpetuated these efforts, both strategic and symbolic, to assert its presence and sovereignty in the Arctic over the course of history. (17)

2. Soviet Union

The Soviet Union originally followed Canada's sector theory of territorial sovereignty, laying claim to an analogous "sector" on its side of the globe, from the northern edge of its land borders to the North Pole. (18) Soon military strategy in the Arctic became an important focal point for the United States and Canada due to perceived Soviet threats. (19) The Arctic became especially strategic territory during the Cold War as a result of the unavoidable fact that the closest air distance between the United States and Soviet Union was across the Arctic Circle. (20) The Soviet Union expressed support for the proposition that Canada owned complete control over its Northwest Passage, and agreed with Canada's desire to adopt an international "straight baseline" rule, a move which could in turn legitimize and expand the Soviets' own claims over the entire "Northeast Passage. …

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