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If Norway and Russia can reach a deal, there’s no reason Canada can’t settle its lingering territorial disputes (Laura Johansen/(C) 2005 Laura Johansen/NonStock)
If Norway and Russia can reach a deal, there’s no reason Canada can’t settle its lingering territorial disputes (Laura Johansen/(C) 2005 Laura Johansen/NonStock)

Michael Byers

It's time to resolve our Arctic differences Add to ...

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has just returned from Nunavut, where he celebrated Canada's ability to send soldiers on snowmobiles across the Arctic sea ice.

On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store was up to more serious business: signing a treaty with Russia that settles the Arctic's most significant boundary dispute.

Oslo and Moscow had previously contested 176,000 square kilometres of the Barents Sea, a shallow portion of the Arctic Ocean with rich fisheries and extensive oil and gas fields.

Norway had argued that the boundary should be a median line, with all points an equal distance from the coastline on either side. Russia had argued that its security interests and substantial Arctic population justified a line that tracked straight north from the land border between the two countries.

The two countries have now agreed to split the difference, dividing the disputed seabed in half. Foreseeing that some hydrocarbons might straddle the boundary, they promise to co-manage those resources wherever such overlaps are found. They have also agreed to continue their decades-long practice of co-managing the fisheries within the area, thus according access and quotas to fishermen from both sides.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the agreement. For decades, Norway and Russia squared off on opposite sides of the Cold War. Most of Russia's nuclear missile submarines are based at Murmansk, an ice-free port on the Barents Sea. Norway is a long-standing member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with modern frigates and F-16s.

Some Russians have argued that their country should take an assertive position on its northern interests. Artur Chilingarov, a flamboyant explorer and deputy speaker of the Duma, sought to claim the entire Arctic for Moscow in 2007, when he planted a titanium Russian flag at the North Pole. Mr. MacKay, then Canada's foreign minister, responded in kind. "Look, this isn't the 15th century," he exclaimed. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, 'We're claiming this territory.' Our claims over our Arctic are very well established."

The European Parliament stirred things up further, calling for a new convention modelled on the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and thus challenging the extensive rights of Arctic Ocean coastal states under the law of the sea.

Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the flag planting as a publicity stunt that had not been approved by the Kremlin. And the European Union issued an Arctic policy recognizing the primacy of the Law of the Sea in a region that, unlike the Antarctic, is centred on an ocean.

And just last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the need for Arctic countries to work together. "We need all hands on deck because there is a huge amount to do, and not much time to do it," she said. "The melting of sea ice, glaciers and permafrost will affect people and ecosystems around the world, and understanding how these changes fit together is a task that demands international co-operation."

After Monday's historic agreement, there is very little left in the Arctic to contest. Only one dispute over land territory exists, between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island - all 1.3 square kilometres of it.

The last maritime boundary dispute of any significance is in the Beaufort Sea, where Canada and the United States both assert ownership of 21,436 square kilometres of seabed. But with both countries each other's largest trading partner, joined in a common energy market under the North American free trade agreement, the dispute is ripe for being resolved.

The same is true of the dispute between Ottawa and Washington over the Northwest Passage. Since 1988, the two countries have simply agreed to disagree. Rather than worrying about whether the waterway is internal or international, they co-operate on all practical matters, from search and rescue to maritime surveillance.

At some point, melting sea ice and increased shipping will necessitate a new agreement, which common security and environmental protection concerns should make it possible to achieve. If Norway can negotiate a win-win agreement with Russia after decades of disagreement, there's no reason for any other Arctic dispute to go unresolved.

It's time to get off the snowmobile, sit down with our neighbours and work something out.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Who Owns the Arctic?

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