Arctic: how do polar bears, crude oil and ethnicity go together?
Kristina Schönfeldt from the University of Bonn has edited a book on the legal issues in the High North
The Arctic is often in the headlines: starving polar bears on melting ice, the reckless hunt for raw materials, an increase in shipping, and the dispute over seal hunting. How should protecting the fragile ecosystem and the indigenous peoples who live there also be achieved? The partially conflicting interests are governed by a variety of different legal instruments. Kristina Schönfeldt from the Institute for Public International Law at the University of Bonn has now edited a book that offers a systematic insight into the legal issues in this seemingly remote corner of the earth.
An example: in 2007, a Russian submarine is said to have left a flag on the seabed at the North Pole to emphasize Moscow’s claim to the natural resources in the area. Interest in the High North is great: besides the Arctic coastal states Russia, Denmark (Greenland), Canada, Norway, and the United States, other countries in Europe and Asia are also attempting to get a slice of the coveted pie. Many have set their sights on non-living ressources such as oil and gas, some on geopolitics, while others are counting on increasing tourism and commercial shipping. The various, sometimes conflicting, aims are also associated with many legal issues – and these are often complex when it comes to the Arctic.
“In the southern polar region, the legally-binding Antarctic Treaty System governs the use and protection of this territory,” says Kristina Schönfeldt from the Institute for Public International Law at the University of Bonn. “In contrast to this, there is no such coherent agreement for the Arctic.” The researcher is the editor of the book ‘The Arctic in International Law and Policy’, in which the legal framework for the various problems in the Arctic is outlined. Essentially, three pillars govern the handling of this region: Firstly, general public international law, secondly, the respective national law of the Arctic states, and, thirdly, ‘soft law’ instruments, which are not only but predominantly developed within the Arctic Council.
“The legal situation in the Arctic is thus much more complex than in Antarctica,” says Schönfeldt. However, the interaction between the various legal instruments and the collaboration between states in the Arctic Council is said to have proven worthwhile. The acid test for this was the Crimean crisis. “Despite the tensions due to the separation of the Crimea, the member states in the Arctic Council have managed to agree on continuing the constructive collaboration with Russia and maintain peace and stability in the polar region,” explains the researcher from the University of Bonn.
Dispute over traditional seal hunting
There are many tensions that directly affect the Arctic due to various interests, sometimes also due to conflicting aims. For example, efforts to save the environment from further exploitation while also protecting the indigenous peoples are fraught with crisis. There have been repeated disputes over traditional seal hunting by the indigenous Canadian population. Even in the 1980s, there was a ban on imports by the European Union. There was once again an EU trade ban on seal meat, furs and other products in 2010, which led to Canada’s case against the trade ban before the Court of Justice of the European Union and the World Trade Organization dispute settlement system. The conflict has still not been resolved with complete satisfaction.
The book provides a systematic overview
From Arctic politics and territorial claims, shipping, fishing and protecting the environment, through to the rights of indigenous peoples – the book conveys the principles of the respective legal framework. The legally and politically relevant problems in the High North are highlighted in an analytical introduction. This is followed by a chronology showing the most important political and legal milestones. In the third section, over 300 original documents (treaties, notes verbales, political statements, national legislation, and similar) have in some cases been edited and translated into English for the first time. “It is a compendium of the most important regulatory instruments that are relevant to the Arctic,” says the researcher. The book is oriented primarily towards legal scholars and practitioners, as well as law students and other interested parties. Schönfeldt would like to address a broad spectrum of readers: “The Arctic concerns everyone: if the polar ice melts, the whole of humanity will ultimately be affected.”
Institute of International Law
University of Bonn
Tel. +49 (0)228/739174