Canada has just concluded a geological expedition in the Arctic in the run-up to its submission of territorial claims. A two-team expedition of federal geologists and oceanographers examined land from Ward Hunt Island, Canada’s northernmost point, to the North Pole. One group conducted research via a sonar probe from a helicopter and the other used an aerogravity probe from an airplane. If Canada can prove that the land is an extension of their continental shelf, as Norway did just a few weeks ago, the United Nations will likely grant them sovereign rights over the territory, a distinction from complete sovereignty. If a claim were successful, a country would be granted full exploitation of the territory’s resources, but would not have the power to regulate not shipping, since this far out from a country’s proper borders, the right of free passage reigns supreme.
UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 77: Rights of the coastal State over the continental shelf: 1. “The coastal State exercises over the continental shelf sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources.”
It is exactly these exploitation rights that countries are seeking.
Currently, Canada is also undertaking another study at Ellesmere Island, a bit to the south of Ward Hunt Island. Here, they tested out a new robotic mapping system that will scan the seabed. Evidence must be submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) by 2013. Countries have ten years to submit claims from the date they ratified the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty. Of the remaining Arctic states, Russia’s deadline just passed on May 13, 2009. Denmark has until 2012. Of course, since the United States hasn’t ratified UNCLOS, it has no deadline. On the other hand, without representatives on the UNCLCS, the U.S. won’t be able to block any country’s attempts at claiming territorial sovereignty.
Although if a country misses the deadline, it technically should miss out on the potential for any territorial acquisitions, the UNCLCS is unlikely to punish countries for tardiness. Expeditions are long and expensive, and poor countries often have to rely on wealthy ones for technical assistance. For instance, south of the Equator, the Netherlands Law of the Sea Institute helped the former Dutch colony of Suriname draw up claims for an area in the Carribbean rich in natural gas.
There were talks of submitting a joint Canadian-Danish-Russian claim, which are still up in the air. According to the New York Times, Russia has decided postpone the submission of its claims to 2013 as it waits for Canada and Denmark to finish their surveys. The latter two countries have actually worked jointly on scientific expeditions to map the controversial Lomonosov Ridge, the part of the Arctic seabed that all three countries are seeking to claim. It is uncertain whether the land is an extension of the North American continent, Greenland, or Siberia.
A Russian official suggested in regards to the submission of the claim, “Maybe it will happen before that.” However, he added that Russia has not yet decided when to submit its claim and that his country faces “no real deadline.”
In fact, the UNCLCS might want countries to actually delay their submissions, for it could take up to 21 years to resolve the existing 69 land claims alone.
“Seabed claims mount, swamping U.N. Commission,”– New York Times