Arctic: Absence of Legal Framework Giving Rise to Disputes

The Arctic region is warming faster than other areas across the globe. Ice are melting rapidly in the Arctic region because of the global warming, clearing this ice-covered region from ice.

The ice of the region is already reduced by as much as 50% from 1950s. Such rapid melting of ice is making the region a more ‘accessible’ zone. Estimations from different corners reveal that the region is speculated to hold oil reserves of upto 13% of the global total of undiscovered oil, upto 30% of natural gas, and also other precious metals.

In short, with the rapid melting of ice in the Arctic region, the long-isolated region is becoming a more accessible zone for commercial fishing, fresh water, minerals, coal, iron, copper, oil, gas, and shipping.

Hence, the region is increasingly catching the world powers’ attention. Arctic states – Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Russia, Norway and the US – are in rush to exploit all these opportunities from the region.

The increasing ‘accessibility’ to the region and the abovementioned ‘speculations’ have given rise to plenty of disputes that have emerged among the aforementioned five countries surrounding the region. Among those disputes, the most intense ones are: (i) regarding boundaries in the Beaufort Sea and the status of the Northwest Passage between the US and Canada, (ii) regarding Hans Island between Canada and Denmark (via Greenland), (iii) regarding the Lomonosov Ridge – a mountain range across the region — among Canada, Denmark and Russia, (iv) and regarding the maritime border from the Bering Sea into the region between the US and Russia.

Therefore, all countries surrounding the region are involved in disputes regarding the ownership and control over different parts of the region. Alongwith these five Arctic countries, China and the UK are also involved in the dispute through their claims over the Svalbard archipelago, which happens to be within the region.

Some of the Arctic countries that are claimant to the disputes have been attempting to come to a solution through the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

However, a constructive solution, which would bind all the claimants to the Arctic disputes to abide by it, could not be reached through these CLCS and UNCLOS. This is because, both CLCS and UNCLOS lack the appropriate mandate from countries across the world, including the aforesaid five Arctic countries, to impose ‘legally binding’ decisions or provisions for any maritime disputes.

Therefore, the absence of a binding legal regime creates scopes for intense territorial and maritime disputes concerning the control, exploration and exploitation of the energy resources in such a region that is becoming increasingly accessible for such purpose (i.e. purpose of energy exploration and exploitation).

In the prevailing scenario, all the Arctic countries, which are involved in the territorial and maritime disputes among themselves, have been moving towards militarizing the region in order to acquire each of their respective objectives in the region.

Such militarization of the region is likely to increase with almost all the countries urging for increasing their military deployments and exercises, and there appears little hope & opportunity for any diplomatic resolution (or political agreement) regarding the disputes.

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