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Treaty on Ice

Author: John B. Bellinger III, Adjunct Senior Fellow for International and National Security Law
June 23, 2008
New York Times

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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.

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