Denmark, Greenland, Norway, Russia, Canada and the USA met in the so-called “Arctic Ocean Conference” – taking place in Ilulissat/Greenland between 27-29 May – in order to discuss how to “improve co-operation on the administration of the Arctic seas, where the environment is fragile”.
The conference must be seen as a first step to reduce tensions over the extension of the relevant countries sovereignty to the arctic waters that are believed to hold wast natural resources. The conference agreed upon the Ilussiat Declaration which basically (only) confirms that the States “remain committed to the [extensive international legal framework applicable to the Arctic Ocean] and to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims”. The States underlined that 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”. What is meant by “law of the sea” are inter alia the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It surely remains to be seen if this initiative really does put an end to the “race for the North Pole”. I would guess that it doesn’t. Instead, it is likely that a broader approach will be necessary also involving the United Nations in order to provide a separate legal framework with regard to the resources that may be found in the Arctic. Not at least since the Law of the Sea convention is not (yet) ratified by all States involved.
What surely is encouraging though, although there were no direct actions decided with regard to this, is the acknowledgment of the environmental changes that affect the Arctic.
I am not convinced that a separate legal framework for Arctic resources is necessary. Whilst not all states with an interest in the Arctic region are currently a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the provisions of the Convention are nevertheless widely accepted as providing the legal framework for all ocean activities as a matter of customary international law. The Ilussiat Declaration would seem to further confirm this. Indeed, all states involved, including the United States, have accepted the Commission on the Outer Limits on the Continental Shelf as the proper forum through which claims to the continental shelf in the Arctic region should be decided. Article 76 of the UNCLOS was the yardstick by which the United States assessed (and criticised) the Russian claims to an outer continental shelf in its observations on the Russian submissions to the Commission – see http://www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/rus01/CLCS_01_2001_LOS__USAtext.pdf.
Canada, Denmark, Norway and Japan have also made observations on the Russian submissions to the Commission.
It is ultimately up to the Commission, an independent body of experts, to decide whether or not the claim is valid. In 2002, the Commission recommended that Russia make a revised submission in respect of the Central Arctic Ocean and so the claim is still pending. It is this process that should also be used to determine claims by other states to an extended continental shelf in the Arctic area. Indeed, all of those states which are a party to the UNCLOS are under an obligation to seek the approval of the Commission before they assert claims over an extended continental shelf. The position is slightly more complex for the United States and it is debatable whether they are permitted to formally claim a continental shelf beyond 200 miles without becoming a party to the UNCLOS.