Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Legal Status of the Arctic Ocean

Opening Address

at the Symposium of the Law of the Sea Institute of Iceland

on the Legal Status of the Arctic Ocean

The Culture House, Reykjavík, 9 November 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen!

The impacts of climate change are hardly as clearly detectable in any place of our planet as in the Arctic where huge quantities of sea ice and glaciers are already retreating. The sea ice in the Arctic is retreating much more swiftly than scientists predicted and now there is even talk that the ice will disappear altogether. This is one of the subjects of the Declaration of the Environment Ministers of the Nordic Countries issued on 31 October last, where it is maintained that the expansion of sea ice in the Arctic region has never been measured smaller in size than in September this autumn, or 23% smaller than measured ever before. Moreover, it is maintained in the Declaration that the retreat of sea ice this year is by far greater than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipated in its report issued last spring.        

Changes in the ecosystem of the Arctic remind us of the necessity to limit man's impact on nature, as well as to ensure sustainable development and responsible exploitation of the resources of the sea.  

Iceland has emphasized the need for all nations to neutralize climate change by reducing emission of greenhouse gases. We must be realistic in thought and capable of responding to the change in circumstances subsequent to climate change, which brings us new opportunities as well as new threats.    

The retreat of ice and the warming of the seas will, together with advances in technology, offer new opportunities for navigation and exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic region. The region contains uncontaminated ecosystems with unique biological diversity, the conservation of which is vital. Care must be taken that the opening of new shipping routes and exploitation of natural resources will not endanger these sensitive ecosystems and to minimize detrimental effects on the environment as far as feasible.      

Last summer a kind of a race was initiated to conquer the North Pole when the Russians launched an expedition to put their national flag on the Pole's seabed. This expedition and the subsequent reactions of the other coastal States in the Arctic Ocean made the headlines of the world press. One should nevertheless bear in mind that this race was first and foremost a political propaganda with no legal implications whatsoever.  

The debate in the aftermath of the Russian expedition was to some degree misleading.  A wild race to conquer the North Pole or the Arctic Ocean was described, a race that was not subject to any rules of international law, which is certainly not the case.       

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has endeavoured to enlighten the debate and I welcome the initiative of the Law of the Sea Institute of Iceland to conduct this Symposium on the legal status of the Arctic Ocean, which serves the same purpose. I would like to use this opportunity to thank Mr. Tómas H. Heiðar, who as well as being the Institute's Director is the Ministry's authority on the law of the sea, for organizing this Symposium.   

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, which is the only comprehensive treaty concluded in this field, applies to all maritime areas with the exception of the unique areas for which special arrangements have been made, like the Antarctic Ocean and the Spitsbergen zone. The Convention on the Law of the Sea is therefore applicable to the Arctic Ocean in general. The Convention contains detailed provisions on all uses of the ocean, the seabed and the air space above. The Convention includes provisions on, inter alia, navigation, fishing, exploitation of oil, gas and other resources of the continental shelf, maritime delimitation, prevention of marine pollution and on marine scientific research.           

Four out of five coastal States in the Arctic Ocean, Canada, Denmark, on behalf of Greenland, Norway and the Russian Federation, are amongst 155 States Parties to the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Other Member States of the Arctic Council, i.e. Iceland, Finland and Sweden, also make up this group. The United States has not yet ratified the Convention but it is evident that altered conditions in the Arctic Ocean have obliged the U.S. Government to reassess its standpoint. President Bush has expressed his desire to ratify the Convention and last week the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations agreed, with substantial majority, to submit the Convention to the Senate.    

Iceland played, as commonly known, an important role in developing the Convention on the Law of the Sea.  In 1985 Iceland became the first western country to ratify the Convention and has continually been one of its principal defenders. Our representatives have cooperated closely, within the United Nations, with representatives of the United States and of other countries on issues pertaining to the law of the sea, and we believe it would strengthen the Convention on the Law of the Sea considerably if the Unites States should become Party to it.    

Iceland places main emphasis on good and close cooperation between States having an interest in the opening of shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean and the exploitation of natural resources in the region in the near future, based on rules of international law pertaining thereto, in particular the provisions of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. All in all, no State will profit from taking unilateral actions inconsistent with international law.      

We should bear in mind that the retreat of the Polar ice and its subsequent impact on the biota affects the interests of such magnitude that we are all affected. In the same manner as when the Convention on the Law of the Sea was in a stage of preparation, international law is now being put to the test, together with those who take part in developing it, namely to answer this urgent moral call of our times.             

When considering the legal status of the Arctic Ocean one must distinguish between the manifold uses of the sea and the various parts of this maritime area. In the case of the continental shelf and the exploitation of its resources one must bear in mind that the Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that coastal States have automatically a right to the continental shelf to a distance of 200 nautical miles, which likewise determines the outer limit of their exclusive economic zones. Under certain natural conditions States can exercise more extensive rights over the seabed. The States concerned shall make a detailed submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf regarding the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. The Commission examines the submission, conducts technical assessments and makes recommendations on the outer limits of the continental shelf. On the basis of the recommendations of the Commission, the coastal State can then establish in a final and binding manner the limits of the continental shelf in relation to the international seabed area outside those limits.        

A prerequisite for a State's claim to the continental shelf in a given maritime area is that it has a coast in the area in question. In relation to the Arctic Ocean the following five States fulfil this condition: Canada, Denmark, on behalf of Greenland, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States. Iceland is situated further south and its sole continental shelf rights in the Arctic Ocean follow from its membership of the Treaty concerning Spitsbergen and the consequent right to exploit the resources of the continental shelf of Spitsbergen.    

Iceland, however, has a claim of extensive continental shelf areas south and east of the island, i.e. on the Reykjanes Ridge, in the Hatton Rockall area and in the south section of the Herring Loophole (Banana Hole), totalling an area of about one million square kilometers. Iceland is the only State claiming rights to the continental shelf on the Reykjanes Ridge and last year agreement was reached on the division of the continental shelf in the south section of the Herring Loophole between Iceland, Norway and Denmark, on behalf of the Faroe Islands. At present, priority is given to attempts to reach an agreement on the division of the Hatton Rockall area, the next consultations between the parties concerned, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark, on behalf of the Faroe Islands, being scheduled in Dublin in mid January 2008. In my view the solution to the issue must include that all States concerned will get a fair share of the area considered most prospective with regard to exploitation of hydrocarbons.     

Concurrent with warming of the ocean, new opportunities may arise for fishing in the Arctic Ocean and various fish stocks may be expected to relocate. Iceland will presumably be able to benefit from this and we must therefore be wide awake. Under the Convention on the Law of the Sea, different rules apply to fishing in different maritime zones. A coastal State has exclusive fishing rights within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone, while on the high seas the general principle of freedom of fishing applies, subject to the restrictions laid down in the UN Fish Stocks Agreement. States Parties to the said Agreement are now 67, including all member States of the Arctic Council.  

The most significant impact of the retreat of the Arctic sea ice in the near future will, without doubt, be the opening of the northern shipping routes, which will be further advanced by technical developments in the building of icebreakers. On the one hand this applies to the Northwest Passage between Canada and Greenland and on the other hand the Northeast Sea Route between Greenland and Scandinavia. The opening of these shipping routes will, more generally, have great significance for global economic development and security. It is suggested that shipping routes from the east coast of North America or from Europe to destinations in the Pacific could thus be shortened by up to 40%, but at present sea transport must be directed either through the Suez Canal in the east or the Panama Canal in the west.        

The Convention on the Law of the Sea provides for freedom of navigation on the high seas and within the exclusive economic zone of coastal States, as well as for the right of innocent passage in the 12-mile territorial sea of coastal States. The Convention also provides for the right of transit passage through straits used for international navigation, the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska being one of such straits. The coastal States concerned need to adopt harmonised rules on the prevention of marine pollution, particularly in ice-covered areas, but it is imperative that the relevant provisions of the Convention on the Law of the Sea be respected and unnecessary barriers to navigation not created.

The opening of the Northeast Sea Route will, in all likelihood, cause increase in navigation of merchant vessels off the shores of Iceland. Iceland is ideally situated as regards business opportunities in this respect. The establishment of transshipment ports is one possibility that needs to be explored further. However, the aforementioned increase in navigation near Iceland would also constitute threats, in particular those of pollution accidents. Measures will have to be taken to avert such danger, for example to install search and rescue equipment and establish pollution-control services.        

Finally, I wish to state again one point from my speech on foreign affairs in the Althing yesterday, that preparations are being made for comprehensive policy-making by the Government of Iceland regarding matters of the North based on work already done. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs will lead the way and consult and work closely with many other ministries and organizations.      

Ladies and Gentlemen!

It is my wish that you will have a good and enlightened discussion about the urgent matters under consideration.   




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