"Conflict over Arctic shelf unlikely"

Russia will have to negotiate with fellow Arctic countries Denmark and Canada over ownership of the North Pole and other underwater Arctic territories.

It all depends on Russia’s and the other Arctic countries’ obligedness with the recommendations issued by the UN, an expert says.


“Russia is fully acting in line with international law when it submits its territorial claims in the Arctic”, Signe Veierud Busch from the K.G Jebsen Institute for the Law of the Sea, a unit under the University of Tromsø, Norway, says to BarentsObserver.

“The submitted claim has been expected for a while now and it includes no surprises,” the researcher adds.

Signe Veierud Busch is researcher at the K.G Jebsen Institute of Law of the Sea in Tromsø, Norway. Photo: Karine Nigar Aarskog / UiT

Russia on 3rd of August submitted its renewed Arctic claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the international body determining the extension of countries’ continental shelf. The claim covers about 1,2 million square kilometers of territory, including the North Pole, and is partly overlapping with the claim submitted by Denmark in December 2014.

The conclusions of the Commission are issued in the form of a recommendation to Russia and is not legally binding for the country.

“Consequently, the key question is to what extent Russia will oblige with the recommendations of the UN Commission and thereupon establish its borders”, Busch underlines.

The UN Commission is a scientific body and does not have the mandate to resolve conflicts between countries.

“It is possible that the Commission will conclude that both Russia and Denmark have continental shelfs which stretches beyond the North Pole, and in that case it will be up to the two countries to negotiate a delimitation deal”, the researcher says.

She doubts that there will break out any conflict in the area based on the overlapping claims.

As previously reported, the Russian Foreign Ministry already this week underlined that it is ready to talk with Danish authorities over the overlapping claims.

The negotiation process between the Arctic countries will take time. The Russian MFA believes it could take “up to 15 years”. That might be a far too positive estimate.

In the case of Russia, which has submitted a renewed claim, the Commission will probably be able to issue its recommendations in the course of one-two years. However, in the case of Denmark, it could take several decades. Currently, there are almost 100 claims waiting to be handled by the UN Commission, and Denmark is almost on the bottom of the list.

“In the worst case, the border between Russia and Denmark, including the ownership of the North Pole, will be determined only after all countries have got their recommendations from the Commission”, Busch says.

She also argues that the role of the USA ultimately will be of key importance. The country has not signed the the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the document which defines countries’ rights and responsibilities with respect to the use of world oceans, but will still  demand a key role in the negotiations.

According to the researcher from the K.G Jebsen Institute, the USA is currentlly with full steam exploring the Arctic continental shelf together with Canada and the two countries could ultimately try to jointly submit a claim to the UN Commission. That would be the first bid of its kind to the UN body ever.