January 09, 2014

The Cold, Hard Reality: Canada’s Continental Shelf Claim is Business-as-Usual, Not a Significant Security Concern

Recent media reports highlighting rising tensions among Arctic nations as a result of Canada’s December continental shelf claim have been vastly overstated. This is especially true considering that no Arctic nations have articulated these concerns. The media interest stems from a partial submission of a claim by Canada to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), to expand territorial control over its continental shelf. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sparked controversy surrounding the claim by ordering the officials in charge of crafting it to include the North Pole in future submissions to the CLCS regarding the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean.  

If the current partial submission is validated, it would extend Canada’s rights to its continental shelf by roughly 1.7 million square kilometers, which would cover the outer limits of the continental shelf in three regions of the North Atlantic: the Labrador Sea, the Grand Banks and Nova Scotia. The claim does not include the North Pole, contrary to what some media headlines have suggested.

While this may appear to be a significant moment in Arctic affairs, the reality of the situation is that it is relatively inconsequential and the claim should rather be viewed as a positive development. The Canadian claim falls directly in line with international law, and it serves as further evidence of the success of governing and regulatory regimes in the Arctic. Running counter to recent reporting, this claim might serve as a means to further secure the region rather than heighten conflict in it.

Precedent shows that past claims in the Arctic have not lead to military confrontation, whether they were merely symbolic claims or were substantiated by scientific evidence. This is largely because the Arctic is—and is recognized as—a well governed area with established, shared principles and a forum for negotiating disagreements through the Arctic Council. All Arctic Council member countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (with the exception of the United States, which has agreed to the use of the Law of the Sea framework as the overarching means to govern the Arctic Ocean). This customary law serves as a pillar in mitigating conflict, and as the Ilulissat Declaration—the coastal Arctic nations’ agreement on an international legal framework for the Arctic Ocean—states, “the law of the sea provides for important rights and obligations concerning the delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf, the protection of the marine environment, including ice-covered areas, freedom of navigation, marine scientific research, and other uses of the sea.”

Canada’s claim was not a surprise and has taken ten years to prepare. It has also cost the Canadian government over $200 million. It is one in a long list of submissions to CLCS—the UN body established to process such maritime-based claims—which has received 70 such claims since 2001.

Through the institutions and customs in place, Arctic states agree to a thorough and transparent governing and regulatory structure in the High North. Clear boundaries provide the assurance of rights to the resources falling within them, and because these claims are part of a well-governed and regulated system, they provide international recognition for the state’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the maritime boundaries in question.

Canada may be seeking to secure its sovereign claims in the region, but this is not a cause for international concern; it is simply business as usual. Legal guidelines and rules regulate matters like these in the Arctic, and Canada’s claim furthers the peaceful progression of solidifying boundaries and security in the region.

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