Treaty on Ice

With the Arctic ice melting, anticipated increases in Arctic shipping, tourism and economic activity, and Russia’s flag-planting at the North Pole last summer, there has been much talk in the press about a “race to the Arctic” and even some calls for a new treaty to govern the “lawless” Arctic region.

We should all cool down. While there may be a need to expand cooperation in some areas, like search and rescue, there is already an extensive legal framework governing the region. The five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean — the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia — have made clear their commitment to observe these international legal rules. In fact, top officials from these nations met last month in Greenland to acknowledge their role in protecting the Arctic Ocean and to put to rest the notion that there is a Wild West-type rush to claim and plunder its natural resources.

Existing international law already provides a comprehensive set of rules governing use of the world’s oceans, including the Arctic. The law enshrines navigational rights and freedoms for military and commercial vessels. It also specifies the rights of coastal nations in offshore marine areas. Setting aside the unfortunate flag-planting on the North Pole (a stunt with no legal significance), Russia has been following international procedures for identifying the legal extent of its boundaries, including its continental shelf.

Other solid international rules also apply in the Arctic. In instances where the maritime claims of coastal nations overlap, international law sets forth principles for them to apply in resolving their disputes. As for protecting the marine environment, the law spells out both national and internationally agreed pollution control measures.

As one example, the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization has produced treaties that limit pollution from various sources, including ships and ocean dumping. It has also developed safety guidelines for ship operations in hard-to-navigate ice-covered areas. What’s more, the Arctic Council, an eight-nation diplomatic forum, is working to strengthen its already existing guidelines on oil and gas activities.

Some nongovernmental organizations and academics say that we need an “Arctic treaty” along the lines of the treaty system that governs Antarctica. Though it sounds nice, such a treaty would be unnecessary and inappropriate. The situations in the Arctic and the Antarctic are hardly analogous. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, governs a continent surrounded by oceans — a place where it was necessary to suspend claims to sovereignty in order to promote peace and scientific research. The Arctic, by contrast, is an ocean surrounded by continents. Its ocean is already subject to international rules, including rules related to marine scientific research, and its land has long been divided up, so there are few disputes over boundaries.

So what should the United States do about the Arctic? For starters, it should do nothing to advance a new comprehensive treaty for the region. Instead, it should take full advantage of the existing rules by joining the Law of the Sea Convention. The convention, now before the Senate, would codify and maximize international recognition of United States rights to one of the largest and most resource-rich continental shelves in the world — extending at least 600 miles off Alaska.

Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia are parties to the convention and they are already acting to protect and maximize their rights. The United States should do the same. Signing on would do much more to protect American security and interests in the Arctic than pursuing the possibility of a treaty that we really don’t need.

John B. Bellinger, the legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.