Summary: Overlapping claims in the Arctic Ocean – Is peaceful dispute settlement possible?
The melting of the Arctic ice shield poses diverse challenges to the legal regime of the Arctic Ocean, the most important of which being the settlement of overlapping outer continental shelf claims by the five central Arctic States (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and USA). So far, the struggle over the natural resources of the Arctic sea-bed has been adequately addressed by the existing legal framework.
The »Arctic Five« emphasized in the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration that they commit themselves to the international law of the sea, and »to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims«. Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), every coastal State has, irrespective of the given geographical and geological circumstances, a »juridicial” continental shelf of 200 nautical miles.
A coastal State may extend this area beyond 200 nautical miles if it is able demonstrate that the relevant parts of the seabed constitute a natural prolongation of its land territory and do not extend beyond the outer edge of the continental margin (“extended« continental shelf).
Taking into account that the outer limit of an extended continental shelf may, depending on the factual situation, lawfully extend to a distance from the coasts of 100 nautical miles seaward the 2.500 meter isobaths, it is clear that the submarine mountain chains that stretch beyond the water column of the Arctic Ocean are particularly relevant in the delineation process.
According to the UNCLOS, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) must be notified of any newly established outer limits of such an »extended« continental shelf within ten years of the State concerned having become a party to UNCLOS.
However, UNCLOS excludes the delimitation of overlapping continental shelf claims from the competences of the CLCS (whose scope is not beyond controversy anyway). Rather, disputes resulting from potential overlaps of continental shelf areas ought to be settled by way of conclusion of delimitation treaties.
In this respect, the 2010 Treaty between Norway and Russia concerning Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean could turn out to be a suitable model for the maintenance of peace and for joint development and management of resource deposits in the high north.