Thursday, 27 January 2011

Canada and Denmark in Hans Island negotiations

Hans Island has long been claimed by both Denmark and Canada
It appears that Canada and Denmark are inching closer to resolution over Hans Island, a tiny barren island sitting halfway between Canada's Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Relations between the two countries have been strained in recent years, and the dispute has taken overt political dimensions, with leaders from both countries visiting the island and military exercises being carried out in the region.

But the two countries are now in negotiations and have embarked on a joint mapping exercise, and officials on both sides are confident of reaching an agreement before Canada lodges its claim over the Arctic seabed to the UN in 2013, according a report in Canada's Globe and Mail on 26th January.

The two countries first attempted to delimitate their maritime boundary in the region in a 1973 treaty, which plotted 127 points through the Nares Strait. Hans Island, however, lies in between two points, and so has remained in dispute. While it has been agreed that the island does not have claim to a territorial sea – in other words that it cannot be used extend one or the other nation's claims for offshore drilling or fishing rights in the area, the issue is important for other reasons. At the heart of the dispute is shipping rights, and it seems that Canada is worried that giving in on Hans Island will compromise its exclusive claims to the Northwest Passage.

There are two probable settlement routes: the first is shared jurisdiction of the island, the second is to have a border running down the middle of the uninhabited island, giving the two countries a land border.

The steps being taken to resolve the dispute between Canada and Denmark mirror those taking place between Canada and the US over their Beaufort Sea boundary between Alaska and Canada's Yukon territory.

While the Americans have long sought a negotiated settlement, Canada has preferred to agree to disagree. But with petroleum companies increasingly eager to explore the hydrocarbon potential of the arctic, Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has signaled his willingness to reach a deal.

The past three summers, the two countries have carried out joint mapping expeditions of the ocean floor, and bilateral discussions continue. The mapping may not be able to be finished until 2013 because of short summer working seasons, and it is unlikely that an agreement will be completed until after then.

The nations that encircle the Arctic have agreed, under the UN Law of the Sea convention, to submit their claims over what they see as their fair share of the Arctic seabed to the UN for arbitration. Canada's deadline is 2013.

As for the biggest dispute of all, who controls the Northwest Passage, none of the players has even agreed to talk about it, and no resolution to the question of whether it is in Canadian or international waters is expected in the foreseeable future.

A major poll of some 9,000 people in eight Arctic countries has recently given some insight on views on their nations' relationship with the Arctic. Over half of Canadians polled said they supported a strengthened military presence in the north to protect against international threats, more than any other country.

Around three-quarters of the Canadians questioned believe that the contested Northwest Passage is in Canadian waters, and half of them believe the Beaufort Sea should belong to Canada.

When asked if they felt their government should pursue a firm line in defending their section of the Arctic, 43per cent of Canadians agreed. This hard line was echoed by 36per cent of respondents in Iceland, 34per cent in Russia and 10per cent or less in the United States, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.

The research was published by Canada's Munk School of Global Affairs and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.

Sources: BBC News, Globe and Mail

For more information on Arctic disputes, see the Menas Borders website, here.

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