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The recent flourish of activity ahead of today's deadline to file claims for Arctic Ocean territory has been touted by the states involved as diplomacy at its best. Experts, however, say the race to secure offshore jurisdictional claims over the Arctic seafloor may have been an exercise in futility.
Alleged serious disputes regarding the ‘shared’ territory between the six nations bordering the Arctic Ocean (Denmark, Canada, Russia, Norway, the US and Iceland) “do not make sense” according to Timo Koivurova, director of the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law at Finland's University of Lapland.
“According to the projections, there should be no oil, gas or minerals in these areas,” he said.
Øystein Jensen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute and expert in environmental and maritime issues, agreed. He pointed out that there are laws are in place to allow coastal states to claim all parts of the seafloor where there may be resources available, however, “this [territory] begins to fall into the abyssal plains – a very deep area – and it is anticipated that there are no resources there, hence why the outer margin is set”.
Seizing the seabed The area where most recent claims have been made concerns the Lomonosov Ridge, a major 1,800 km-long submarine ridge that divides the Arctic Ocean into two major basins.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a coastal state is entitled to the seabed within 200 nautical miles, known as the ‘exclusive economic zone’ (EEZ), of its coastline or until the continental margin.
However, states can extend their rights over the sea floor to a distance of 350 nautical miles from their shore if they can demonstrate that their continental shelf extends beyond the 200 nautical mile EEZ.
Canada, Denmark and Russia have each submitted new claims regarding the ridge and according to Koivurova, the continental shelves of each state will likely overlap.
“They can either resolve this by themselves or make a joint submission to the commission on the limits of continental shelves,” he said
Jensen says these maximum constraint laws are particularly “rigorous” with little room for dispute, however, there are some areas that could cause some contention.
“There are a few areas of the Arctic seabed that are beyond control of national jurisdiction in terms of the continental shelf,” Jensen said.
He stressed that there may be additional legal issues that will complicate matters in determining ownership.
“The main issue will be the concept of ‘natural prolongation’,” meaning a nation’s maritime boundaries can only reflect the unbroken submerged area of where its land territory reaches the coast. “There are some ruptures in the continental margin, which may preclude certain claims,” he said.
“In addition, the technical classifications for elevations and ridges in the area may also cause issues, as there are complex rules regarding these.”
Ownership still important Although states may not be applying to exploit mineral resources any time soon, Jensen said that having clear jurisdictional laws over the continental shelf was still of significant interest to any coastal state.
“Naturally, they would try to obtain as much as they can, and they have a right to according to international law,” Jensen said. He also stressed that assessing claims will “be a peaceful process,” despite what has been implied in the media.
The deadline for submissions closes today and as of Thursday, some 50 claims had already been lodged. A commission of the UNCOLS will process the claims. Its first rulings are expected in 2019.