· Denmark, Canada, Russia, Norway and US in talks
· Environmentalists seek anti-drilling treaty
- The Guardian,
- Thursday May 29 2008
Arctic nations were yesterday accused of paving the way for a polar "carve up" when they signed a deal aimed at resolving territorial disputes.
The agreement was signed in Greenland by ministers from Russia, the US, Norway, Denmark and Canada, and sought to cool down an increasingly heated scramble for the Arctic, driven by the prospect of oil and gas reserves made newly accessible by the melting of the polar icecap.
"The five nations have now declared that they will follow the rules. We have hopefully quelled all myths about a race for the North Pole once and for all," said the Danish foreign minister, Per Stig Møller, who co-hosted the meeting.
Last year, Russia sent a submarine under the icecap to plant a national flag on the seabed to underline its territorial claims. Denmark has planted a flag on Hans island, a territory Canada also has claims on and has announced plans to set up a military training base and a deep sea port in the disputed region.
Yesterday's declaration said that all five nations would abide by the 1982 UN convention on the law of the sea, which determines territorial claims according to coastlines and undersea continental shelves. A UN panel is due to decide on control of the Arctic by 2020.
Thomas Winkler, head of international law in the Danish foreign ministry, told the Guardian last night: "The main point is that the five coastal states have sent a very clear political signal to everybody that we will manage the Arctic responsibly, that we have the international rules necessary and we will all abide by those rules."
But environmentalists said the closed-door meeting cleared the path for a land grab by states with claims to the continental shelf at the pole; Iceland, Finland and Sweden, part of the Arctic Council group of nations, but without similar territorial claims, were excluded, as were environmental groups and the native Inuit.
"It's clear what's going on. They are going to use the law of the sea to carve up the raw materials, but they are ignoring the law of common sense - these are the same fossil fuels driving climate change in the first place," said a Greenpeace International spokesman, Mike Townsley. "The closed door nature of this is doubly troubling. It's clear they know what they're trying to do is unacceptable," he claimed
Environmentalists would like the Arctic have the same sort of treaty applied to the Antarctic, which prevents drilling or military activity. However, Norway's foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, argued that further international regulatory agreements were unnecessary.
"Those that say there is a legal vacuum in the Arctic are wrong because the UN law of the sea convention prevails in the Arctic as it does in other oceans," he said.
The law of the sea is unlikely to resolve all the territorial disputes in play as the Arctic melts. Both Denmark and Russia claim the Lomonosov ridge under the pole is part of their territory. The Danes seek to prove it is a geological extension of Greenland, a self-governing Danish territory.
Critics also questioned the inclusion of the US, which has not ratified the law of the sea. Rob Huebert, of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies in Calgary, argued: "The move by the Danes to invite the Americans to the meeting about the northern continental shelf raises the possibility that the Americans may gain the benefits of the convention without having to shoulder any of the responsibilities. Although this may not be the Danes' intent, one needs to ask why they want to hold a meeting to discuss the Arctic continental shelf with a country that refuses to become a party to the treaty."
Representing the US, the deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte, said he believed it was in his country's interests for Congress to ratify the treaty, "not least because of the impact it would have on our Arctic policy, where it's very important. I'm not certain we have enough time before the end of the year to get it ratified, but we will work as hard as we can."
Yesterday's declaration also included an agreement to cooperate in the event of marine accidents, caused by an expected increase in shipping through the sea lanes opened up by the melting icecap, and a rise in the number of icebergs breaking off from the Pole.