Upon ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country has a ten year period to make claims to extend its 200 nautical mile zone. Due to this, Norway (ratified the convention in 1996), Russia (ratified in 1997), Canada (ratified in 2003) and Denmark (ratified in 2004) launched projects to base claims that certain Arctic sectors should belong to their territories. The United States has signed, but not yet ratified this treaty, although George W. Bush asked the United States Senate to ratify it on May 15, 2007 and on October 31, 2007, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 to send the ratification vote to the full US Senate.
The status of the Arctic sea region is in dispute. While Canada, Denmark, Russia and Norway all regard parts of the Arctic seas as "national waters" or "internal waters", the United States and most European Union countries officially regard the whole region as international waters (see Northwest Passage).
In addition, Canada claims the water between the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as its own internal waters. The United States is one of the countries which does not recognize Canada's, or any other countries', Arctic water claims, and has allegedly sent nuclear submarines under the ice near Canadian islands without requesting permission.
On April 15, 1926, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR declared the territory between two lines (35°E and 170°W) drawn from Murmansk to the North Pole and from the Chukchi Peninsula to the North Pole to be Soviet territory.
Otherwise, until 1999 the North Pole and the major part of the Arctic Ocean had been generally considered international territory. However, due to Arctic shrinkage the polar ice has begun to recede at a rate higher than expected due to global warming, several countries have made moves to claim, or to enforce pre-existing claims to, the waters or seabed at the Pole.
On November 27, 2006, Norway also made an official submission into the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (article 76, paragraph 8). There are provided arguments to extend the Norwegian zone in three areas of the northeastern Atlantic and the Arctic: the Loop Hole in the Barents Sea, the Western Nansen Basin in the Arctic Ocean, and the Banana Hole in the Norwegian Sea. The submission also states that an additional submission for continental shelf limits in other areas may be posted later.
On December 20, 2001, Russia made an official submission into the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (article 76, paragraph 8). In the document it is proposed to establish new outer limits of the continental shelf of Russia beyond the previous 200 nautical mile zone, but within the Russian Arctic sector. The territory claimed by Russia in the submission is a large portion of the Arctic, including the North Pole. One of the arguments was a statement that Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain ridge underneath the Pole, and Mendeleev Ridge are extensions of the Eurasian continent. In 2002 the UN Commission neither rejected nor accepted the Russian proposal, recommending additional research.
On August 2, 2007, a Russian expedition called Arktika 2007, composed of six explorers led by Artur Chilingarov, employing MIR submersibles, for the first time in history descended to the seabed below the North Pole. Here they planted the flag of Russia and took water and soil samples for analysis, continuing a mission to provide additional evidence related to the Russian claim of the mineral riches of the Arctic. This was part of the ongoing 2007 Russian North Pole expedition within the program of the 2007–2008 International Polar Year.
The expedition aims to establish that a section of seabed passing through the pole, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, is in fact an extension of Russia's landmass. The expedition came as several countries are trying to extend their rights over sections of the Arctic Ocean floor. Both Norway and Denmark are carrying out surveys to this end. Vladimir Putin made a speech on a nuclear icebreaker earlier this year, urging greater efforts to secure Russia's "strategic, economic, scientific and defence interests" in the Arctic.
In response to Arktika 2007, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister said the following:
This is posturing. This is the true north strong and free, and they're fooling themselves if they think dropping a flag on the ocean floor is going to change anything. There is no question over Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. We've made that very clear. We've established - a long time ago - that these are Canadian waters and this is Canadian property. You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century.|4=Peter MacKay, former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs
I read reports of the statements made by my Canadian colleague, Peter MacKay. I know him quite well – it’s very unlike him. I was sincerely astonished by "flag planting." No one engages in flag planting. When pioneers reach a point hitherto unexplored by anybody, it is customary to leave flags there. Such was the case on the Moon, by the way.
As to the legal aspect of the matter, we from the outset said that this expedition was part of the big work being carried out under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, within the international authority where Russia’s claim to submerged ridges which we believe to be an extension of our shelf is being considered. We know that this has to be proved. The ground samples that were taken will serve the work to prepare that evidence.
On September 25, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, "President Putin assured me that he meant no offense, ... nor any intention to violate any international understanding or any Canadian sovereignty in any way.
Prime Minister Harper has also promised to defend Canada's claimed sovereignty by building and operating up to eight Arctic patrol ships, a new army training centre in Resolute Bay, and the refurbishing of an existing deepwater port at a former mining site in Nanisivik.
In August 2007, an American Coast Guard icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, headed to the Arctic Ocean to map the sea floor off Alaska. Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire, stated the trip had been planned for months, having nothing to do with the Russians planting their flag. The purpose of the mapping work aboard the Healy is to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska.
In mid-September 2007, Russia's Natural Resources Ministry issued a statement:
Preliminary results of an analysis of the earth crust model examined by the Arktika 2007 expedition, obtained on September 20, have confirmed that the crust structure of the Lomonosov Ridge corresponds to the world analogues of the continental crust, and it is therefore part of the Russian Federation's adjacent continental shelf.
Foreign Ministers and other officials representing Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States met in Ilulissat, Greenland in May 2008, at the Arctic Ocean Conference and announced the Ilulissat Declaration.
In 1973, Canada and Denmark negotiated the geographic coordinates of the continental shelf, and settled on a delimitation treaty which was ratified by the United Nations on December 17, 1973, and in force since March 13, 1974. The treaty list 127 points (latitude and longitude) from Davis Strait to the end of Robeson Channel, where Nares Strait runs into Lincoln Sea, to draw geodesic lines between, to form the border. The treaty does not, however, draw a line from point 122 (80° 49' 2 - 66° 29' 0) to point 123 (80° 49' 8 - 66° 26' 3), a distance of . Hans Island is situated in the centre of this area.
Danish flags had been planted on Hans Island in 1984, 1988, 1995 and 2003. These were formally protested by the Canadian government, and followed with former Canadian defence minister Bill Graham making an unannounced stop on Hans Island during a trip to the Arctic in July 2005. This launched yet another diplomatic quarrel between the governments, and a truce call that September.
Canada had claimed Hans Island was clearly in their territory, as topographic maps originally used in 1967 to determine the island's co-ordinates clearly showed the entire island on Canada's side of the delimitation line. However, federal officials reviewed the latest satellite imagery in July 2007, and conceded the line went roughly through the middle of the island. This still presently leaves ownership of the island disputed, with claims over fishing grounds and future access to the Northwest Passage possibly at stake as well.
The Canadian position is that the maritime boundary should follow the land boundary. The American position is that the maritime boundary should extend along a path equidistant from the coasts of the two nations. The disputed area may hold significant hydrocarbon reserves. The US has already leased eight plots of terrain below the water to search for and possibly exploit oil reserves that may exist there. Canada has protested diplomatically in response.
No settlement has been reached to date, because the US has signed but has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If the treaty is ratified, the issue would likely be settled at a tribunal.
The legal status of a section of the Northwest Passage is disputed: Canada considers it to be part of its internal waters, fully under Canadian jurisdiction, arguing that they are archipelagic waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States and most maritime nations, consider them to be an international strait, which means that foreign vessels have right of "transit passage". In such a regime, Canada would have the right to enact fishing and environmental regulation, and fiscal and smuggling laws, as well as laws intended for the safety of shipping, but not the right to close the passage.
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