About that Russian Arctic “Claim”

Since a Russian submarine planted a flag 13,000 feet underneath the North Pole twelve days ago there has been a new scramble (of sorts) for the Arctic. Denmark sent two ice breakers to survey its potential claims; the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just announced a new mission to map part of the Arctic near Alaska; and at a North American summit in Ottawa today, the Canadian prime minister is expected to assert Canada’s territorial claim over the Northwest Passage.

Fortunately, there is a forum for resolving territorial disputes in the Arctic. So, like Scott Paul says, a “new Cold War” this isn’t. Here is how it works. Common international maritime law stipulates that each country’s territory stretches 200 nautical miles off shore. This means that most of the outer ring of the Arctic Circle is neatly divided by Canada, Russia, Norway, the United States, and Denmark (which controls Greenland). It is the inner ring, however, where the confusion — and competition — arises.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos) Arctic countries can lay claim to the seabed beyond 200 nautical miles if that seabed is an extension of their continental shelf. A panel of 21 geologists and scientists that sit on a body called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Self reviews and certifies these claims.

Flag planting has zero standing under international law. It is geology that dictates claims. So if Russia wants to make an internationally recognized claim it must send supporting scientific data to the Commission. Unfortunately, while Russia can take advantage of the rights afforded to it under Unclos, the United States cannot. This is because the United States senate has not yet ratified the treaty. So all the mineral wealth that is believed to be hiding underneath the inner ring of the Artic Circle may be beyond the reach of American petroleum companies.

There is, however, a great deal of domestic support for ratification. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is unanimously in favor of the treaty–as is the president. They are joined by an unlikely coalition of environmental groups, oil companies and the military. All that stands in the way of ratification is 1) senate scheduling 2) a small number of senators who still subscribe to what we may call the “Frank Gaffney worldview” in which Unclos cedes, rather than affirms American sovereignty. But under pressure from both the White House, military, and various interest groups opposition to the treaty from the knee-jerk anti-UN wing of congress is dwindling.