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Why is establishing the Arctic as common heritage so important?

Sarah Bracking
By Sarah Bracking

Professor Sarah Bracking is the current holder of the South African Research Chair in Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Research Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, University of Manchester. She is editor of Corruption and Development (Palgrave, 2007), author of Money and Power (Pluto, 2009) and The Financialisation of Power in Africa (Routledge, 2012).

Posted on Monday, 19 March 2012 15:41

In this column, duly entitled, The dogs, the poles, the thieves and their detractors: why is establishing the Arctic as common heritage so important? Sarah Bracking delves into the dangers of market capitalism and the push for new oil frontiers in the Arctic. She points out that under the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea Treaty in force from 1994, all mineral and exploration rights extend 200 nautical miles off a coastline, or more if it is continental shelf, and if this were applied the status of ownership in the Arctic is in question. So why is this important to readers in Africa?

Have you heard of Lucy, Viv, Ilai, Shai, Ra, Mike and Shayne, or Tara, Jippi and Blues? Maybe not. The first group are courageous campaigners from Greenpeace who recently staged a 77-hour marathon occupation of Shell’s Arctic rig platform in protest about its imminent departure from New Zealand for the arctic waters off Alaska. The latter are the names of the three dogs that head up Shell’s plans to find oil under the deep sea ice in the event of a spill – along with some people armed with buckets and spades. That isn’t a joke. And The UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee weren’t particularly impressed by other aspects of what Shell and Cairn Energy were planning (or not planning, more accurately) if something goes wrong in their Arctic operations, when they interviewed them last Wednesday as part of their Parliamentary Enquiry into Protecting the Arctic (worth watching on parliamentary TV). Like the lack of testing of any of the well capping technology in icy conditions – lets face it, it didn’t even work in the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico – or the science behind the dispersal techniques.

Just to illustrate the problem of cleaning up after a hypothetical, as yet, spill, using Greenpeace’s great summary: BP needed 6,500 ships and 50,000 people to mount a (slow) response to Deepwater Horizon in the gulf of Mexico, and took 85 days to drill the critical relief well (all capping efforts failed). Yet Shell claim they could ‘clean up’ after a spill with far less people in Sea, Alaska, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that there is no obvious way of getting them there! As PEW summarise “there are insufficient airports, ports and roads along the Chukchi Sea coastline to support a spill response effort… there are no roads connecting the Chukchi Sea coast to the rest of Alaska” (PEW, 2012). Maybe they are planning to fly them in using the Alert Canadian forces base at 1,000 kilometers or so away, the most nothern inhabited place? Oops it’s only home to less than 60 scientists and scientific equipment and reachable by small aircraft. Or using the Eureka weather station, or maybe through the nearest village of about 500 souls at Resolute Bay in Canada, or the Thule US Airforce base in Greenland? Nope, all tiny with no spare beds. And anyone wanting to work for Shell in the future should be aware that if Canadian service personnel manage 180 days of honourable service at Alert they get a Special Service Medal – so its a bit tough to live up there too (Royal Canadian Airforce, 2012). Let’s face it, there are not that many people living north of 60 degrees North latitude (about 50,000 mostly Samis, Inuits and Greenlanders), no deep container or tanker ports, and where Shell want to go in the actual Arctic Ocean there are maybe only about 5,000 souls above 75 degrees North latitude, mostly in Greenland, and no infrastructure apart from these military outliers and research stations, oh and across the pole, the more or less completely uninhabited Russian Arctic islands which have been used as dumping sites for past toxic waste, nuclear waste and nuclear submarines.

Meanwhile, Cairn Energy claim they could build a relief well in double quick time relative to the Gulf of Mexico, at 34 days in Arctic conditions (as long as it is not the beginning of the winter season and growing ice stops them, in which case they would have to wait for ‘summer’ again to do it!). And suddenly, by the Parliamentary Committee hearing this week, there is no problem with capping technologies! They did look uncomfortable under questioning, and were saved only by a fire alarm at the Commons which ended the session.

A sustainable Arctic future?

The UK Enquiry is welcome, and claims to have the objective of trying to influence more directly involved countries into forging a sustainable future for the Arctic, including the Canadians whose Alert base “plays a key role in projecting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic” being “proudly Canadian” (Royal Canadian Airforce, 2012).

So who is involved? Contiguous to the Arctic Ocean are Russia, which convention says has the largest slice of the pie, imagined by drawing up to the pole along the pie slices made between the longitude lines on a globe – technically called the ‘sector principle’. Russia has about 165 degrees, which would have been a full 180 if it hadn’t sold Alaska to the Americans. Next up is Canada with just under 90 degrees of ‘pie’, followed by Denmark, with just over 30 degrees, because of its trustee ownership of Greenland, but which houses the most amount of people living in the Arctic Circle, at around 3,000 souls north of 75 degrees latitude, in small Greenland villages of real families, as opposed to service personnel. Norway has a small claim through its outlier Spitsbergen, which under the 1920 Treaty of incorporation into Norway still allows other countries exploration rights. The UK has been sending University parties and the odd researcher up there for years just in case something valuable is found there, while in a similar manner the Russians keep open an arguably completely uneconomic coal mine at Barentsburg for the same reason. Most people who live there live in company towns. Which leaves only the Americans who have a very small piece of pie – around 15 degrees because they own Alaska, which means they don’t like the sectoral territorial principle at all, and make no claims on the Arctic and also do not recognise anyone else’s. Thus in 1969 they sailed the supertanker ‘Manhattan’ through Canada’s northern passage creating a diplomatic spat and a new US understanding that Canadian ice breakers were better than their American equivalents. Meanwhile Iceland makes no claims northward as the Arctic Circle just shaves its territory. [Technically, the Arctic Council comprises Canada, Denmark (covering Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the US as Arctic States which have territory in the region. Some Arctic indigenous peoples have Permanent Participant status while the UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland and Spain are observer states].

only a mere 5.9 percent of national waters and just 0.5 percent of international waters are set aside as off-limits to destructive fishing, energy exploration and other industrial threats

However, and here is the rub, under the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea Treaty in force from 1994, all mineral and exploration rights extend 200 nautical miles off a coastline, or more if it is continental shelf, and if this were applied the status of ownership in the Arctic is in question. The sector principle is convention, not law. In the past, when there was sea ice deep across the pole, none of this mattered much, and the contested claims to resources which seemed to have no value in any case were left dormant. A similar situation of many contested claims existed in terms of the Antarctic before the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 came into force, but a provision of this Treaty made them non actionable, in order to avoid future conflicts. But in the Arctic there has been no such foresight, and we are sleep walking into a big problem since the fossil fuel industry has contributed to warming up the planet so much that the arctic sea ice is melting, and creating a whole new frontier in which it can potentially drill, where is couldn’t get to before. The retreating ice also opens up new fishing areas, shipping routes, and strangely enough this very hoary political situation. In fact the Arctic is a major new frontier of potential contestation, and not simply because, as virtually any scientist not on the payroll of the oil industry would insist on, it is virtually impossible to clear up oil spills there should they happen.

Contested sovereignty

This situation of unsettled international law and contested sovereignty means that not only could Shell not clean up a spill, but we may also not know in whose waters it legally happened, or whose law could be used in litigation! This was illustrated when a cook was murdered on the American Arctic Research Station, in somebody’s sector on a piece of floating ice, jurisdiction-less. The problem was only solved by pretending it had actually happened on a ship, so the Law of the Sea applied. [Strangly enough a man died in the Antarctic of methanol poisoning at the Scott-Amundsen research station but while the jurisdiction was clear under that Treaty, and the New Zealand authorities investigated, tensions arose, the US were criticised for non cooperation, and the inquest ending inconclusively (The Observer, 2007)]. All this adds up to the fact that Shell can really do as they please up there, whatever discomfort they suffered in the Committee.

Processes are under way: “Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) the five states surrounding the North Pole (Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark (via Greenland)), are able to submit bids for Arctic territory. This process is set to begin in Spring 2012 and ends in 2014 and will result in successful applicants gaining resource rights” (HOC, Environmental Audit Committee, 2012). Interestingly, a boundary treaty was made between Russia and Norway in relation to Spitsbergen and the Russian Novaya Zemlya archipelago in 2010, because of increasing interest in petroleum exploration, which did not use the sector principal, but their relative position. Shell should have to wait until we know which bit belongs to which country, presumably, to actually drill? It doesn’t seem as if members of the Arctic Council have planned this properly.

Is development necessary at all?

But why develop the region at all? Perhaps non-development and conservation is the only possible way we can do sustainability. In the circumstances of the logistical impossibility of industry safety in one of our last wilderness spaces, combined with the lawlessness of a typical frontier, the remit for the UK Select Committee looks a bit lame. Its intention is to “examine what more needs to be done – through dialogue, treaties, regulations and incentives – to ensure that any development of the region is sustainable and takes full account of its impacts on climate change and the environment” (HOC, Environmental Audit Committee, 2012). In other words, it has accepted already that these fishing, minerals and shipping possibilities will go ahead. But arguably what we really need is a Treaty of ‘non-development’ like the one that applies to the other pole in the Antarctic, where in a rare moment of positive insight and collective action on behalf of the global commons, the whole area south of 60 degrees South latitude was dedicated to scientific purposes way back in 1961. Imagine an age where science could still trump commerce!

in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord

The Antarctic Treaty, drafted in 1959 after a successful year of scientific cooperation, and brought into force in 1961, provides for no minerals exploitation (and thus no risk of despoilation), no military presence, and no more land claims – there is even a bit in the middle which remains unclaimed by any country to this day! Activities in the Antarctic are now governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) rules, which are made up of the original Treaty and three international agreements made under it: Convention for conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972); Convention on the conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (1980); and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991). It means the Antarctic is permanently committed to solely peaceful purposes and research, to ensure “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord” (Antarctic Treaty, 1959). Thus it lays the precedent for the ‘common heritage of mankind principle’, which was first specified tightly in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declared outer space to be the common heritage of mankind (sic). In similar terms the Moon Treaty followed. So unless some other species shows up in outer space or on the moon, these now have better conservation than the Arctic. Interestingly, in 1970, the Common Heritage Principle was applied to the deep sea bed, and in 1982, to “the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction” under Article 136 of the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS). In other words, if the sector principle is not applied in the Arctic after all, beyond 200 nautical miles of shoreline we have a precedent for protected status – international waters or ‘high seas’ at the very top. But it is a very small part of the Arctic Ocean, and may yet become smaller if the contested continental shelf claims being made to the Law of the Sea Treaty – to extend from 200 nautical miles upward on behalf of some Arctic States – are agreed.

Wow! Us Northern hemisphere people can only gasp at the best practise from the Global South in the Antarctic Treaty and compare it to the mess up North. [Anyone unfortunate enough to suffer development industry ‘speak’ in their daily work can read that sentence again].This is what we need in the Arctic, from 75 degree North upward at least, or from the bigger designation of the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees, 32 minutes North latitude ideally. This is a rare opportunity to fight for this new frontier emerging from under the ice, in a situation where globally “only a mere 5.9 percent of national waters and just 0.5 percent of international waters are set aside as off-limits to destructive fishing, energy exploration and other industrial threats” (Greenpeace, 2012). And is the year by which the world’s governments should have committed to a global network of marine protected areas (MPAs). So a derisory response so far.


So why is this important to readers in Africa? Am I just being a hypocrite as dirty industry returns to the European backyard, when Europeans (of which I am one) had safely thought it consigned to ‘developing’ countries? Well, I think it is important because it is part of our common heritage -no one should ‘own’ a magnetic pole – and a chance to push back the frontier of capitalism. A frontier, as a good geographer would know, is not a fixed line, but a contested zone where codified behaviour has yet to be subject to law. At the edge of market capitalism are those things it cannot control completely, like humans and other species, aspects of the natural world, and perversely the global warming and pollution caused by market capitalism itself. These frontiers have expanded over the last 500 years dragging ever more people and things, often kicking and screaming or losing their lives or land in the process, into market capitalism. Our mainstram economics has sanitised this process, explaining how people and things change form: people become workers, nature becomes resources and resources become commodities.

But this is not inevitable! In fact there are frontiers everywhere that can be contested: at the bantustanization of Palestine at the imperialist frontier; in the Arctic, in forests, wetlands, mountains at the multiple common heritage frontiers; over the financialisation of carbon and the atmosphere, other species and the non-human world at the conservation frontier; and over the worth of human life at the moral frontier, to prevent the 15,000 deaths per day in Africa from preventable causes like malaria and hunger. And interesting things happen at the edges (as Keynes is purported to have said), where frontiers remain. Step up Denmark (custodian of Greenland) and Norway! Table a Treaty at the UN to take the Arctic out of the jaws of capitalist development! Also, the people in Greenland and Spitsbergen could think of filing a case to the European Court of Human Rights against gross neglect of their safety.

In the meantime, thanks to Lucy, Viv, Ilai, Shai, Ra, Mike and Shayne. We all owe you. And I am now going to telephone animal welfare, to go and rescue Tara, Jippi and Blues, since I don’t think the paws of border collies were designed for these weather extremes – Shell are obviously guilty of animal cruelty on top!

Thanks to Emeritus Faculty Dr Roger Braithwaite at the School of Environment and Development, Manchester University, UK, a lifelong visitor and researcher in the Arctic Circle for his assistance.

Other References

The Guardian – The Observer (2007), “Mystery of poisoning in Antarctic deepens as suicide is ruled out”, 14th January, 0212

PEW Environment Group, (2012), Re: Comments on Shell Offshore Inc.’s 2012 OCS Lease Exploration Plan, Chukchi Sea, Alaska, and 2012 Chukchi Sea, Regional Exploration Oil Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plan, available from

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