You can’t own the North Pole
There are many stakeholders in terms of territories in northern areas, as this map from Durham University shows. Denmark and Christian Marcussen (inset) is one of several with requests for rights at the North Pole. (Map: Durham University, photo: Arne F. Finne).

You can’t own the North Pole

–  No, the purpose is not to take over the North Pole, asserts Danish Christian Marcussen to his audience during High North Dialogue. You can’t own the North Pole.  No, the purpose is not to take over the North Pole, asserts Danish Christian Marcussen to his audience during High North Dialogue.

Marcussen is a geophysicist, as well as senior advisor and project leader for the Greenland segment of the Continental Shelf Project in Denmark. During the High North Dialogue conference, Marcussen explained the technical and legal background to Denmark’s submission, regarding definition of territorial boundaries, to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

Resources in focus

PhD candidate Gunnar Sander at UiT Norway’s Arctic University puts it bluntly;

-  No-one can own the North Pole.  No-one can own bodies of water, or the columns of water between the ocean floor and the surface, nor can anyone own the ocean floor under the North Pole. What is possible, says Sander, is that a coastal national obtains sovereign rights to resources on the ocean floor, as well as the rights to manage these resources.

Dividing the orange

There are, however, overlapping interests in the territories that Denmark has expressed a desire to “take over”. Theoretically speaking, it is not impossible for several states to possess continental plates that overlap.

-  This is not something a coastal state just claims; it must be based on concrete and documented data about the natural extension of the shelf to the continental margin – the furthest boundary of the continental shelf, says Sander to High North News.

The illustration below shows how off-coastal zones are defined by the United Nations.


Such are the zones off the coast defined by the UN. (Illustration: Gunnar Sander and Audun Igesund, Norwegian Polar Institute).

Such are the zones off the coast defined by the UN. (Illustration: Gunnar Sander and Audun Igesund, Norwegian Polar Institute).

Many can be right

Countries submit data to CLCS, as Denmark did in December 2014, after which CLCS checks the figures in relation to criteria laid out in the Law of the Sea.

Russia and Canada are expected to submit territorial claims that overlap parts of the claim sent in by Denmark and, theoretically speaking, all of them can be “right”.

Negotiation is the key

-  As far as I see it, there is already a situation between Norway and Denmark/Greenland, which lie next to each other. One reason is that the Commission does not consider adjacent boundaries, which would be relevant in the case of states that lie side-by-side. The Commission only looks at the furthest boundary of the individual coastal state, says Gunnar Sander.

The Commission can, therefore, allocate the rights to a particular area to several states. Coastal states will have to negotiate these overlaps. According to Sander, the same can problem can arise between states that face one another, eg. Russia <-> Canada and Russia <-> Greenland.

Recommendations only

-  I am not sure whether the Commission will undertake an evaluation of these state’s overlap, and recommend a division.  If it does NOT do that, then the principles laid out in the Law of the Sea are the same: Negotiation.

-  CLCS provides recommendations, but it is the coastal states alone that must arrive at a final, binding decision regarding the extent of the shelf. It might seem like a recipe for conflict?

International tribunal

-  There are ambiguities in the Law of the Sea. If a state does not follow the recommendations of the Commission, and adopts a larger area than the Commission determines they have a right to, than there are no other mechanisms for resolution than those general dispute mechanisms contained in the Law.

However, the dispute provisions do provide for a specific tribunal.  In such a case, one or more states must summon the relevant coastal state to the international tribunal.

Will remain “common”

According to Gunnar Sander, questions about extended continental shelves will not have any ramifications for the status of the high seas.

-  The polar waters are and will remain in accordance with the Law “high seas” and, therefore, international waters long into the future.

A long way to go

The Danish senior advisor, Christian Marcussen, is also aware that there will come no recommendations from the Commission in the next few weeks, possibly not for years.

-  There is a long list of cases on the Commission’s table, and we are at the back of the queue. We must calculate possibly ten years, and we expect that we will have to argue our case.  It is not an exact science; over that time you will need to utilize different models, and the result is by no means certain, concedes Marcussen.

 Translation by Sarah Kathleen Evans, UiN.

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