International Law and the Arctic

International Law and the Arctic by Michael Byers With James Baker is the academic version of his earlier Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North which was written for a general audience. That said, I must tread carefully in saying that I did not find the academic version entertaining reading. Not that that was ever Byers’s intention, but be forewarned that it took me thirteen days to get through its 283 pages. There is a lot of repetition in this book, not unusual for an academic read. I learned more about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea than I would have ever found out about from elsewhere. I was also pleased to learn that conditions exist for certain countries to claim economic rights past their 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones provided that they can prove continental shelf contiguity. It is these things that appealed to me, nitty-gritty borderline bone-picking. However, Byers would have made his cases a lot clearer if he had only included maps.

Only one map was included in this entire book. I made the same remark in the shorter Who Owns the Arctic? I wonder if copyright restrictions precluded Byers from including any more, but he did provide footnotes indicating where relevant maps could be found. A book that describes coastlines and seabeds, as well as islands and exclusive economic zones needs maps. Without them, his comparison of rhumb lines on a Mercator projection versus geodetic lines on a conical projection was meaningless. How could I understand disputes between nations when I have no maps to look at? All I could do was guess at what he must be writing about until I got my hands on a detailed atlas or an Internet connection.

There is only one territorial dispute in the Arctic, that of the sovereignty over Hans Island between Canada and Denmark (for Greenland). Byers presented the evidence and it seems clear to me that that little island belongs to Canada. The nations involved, however, have managed to keep every territorial negotiation peaceful and even light-hearted. This is a testament to the friendship between Canada and Denmark, and, as Byers maintains, to every nation that borders the Arctic. While Canada regards its Northwest Passage as its sovereign internal waters inasmuch as Russia regards its Northern Sea as its, neither nation has come into conflict with another over an illegal passage by another nation. As Arctic ice melts and the Northwest Passage becomes ice-free for longer periods each year, Canada must assert its sovereignty by being a present watchdog in the area.

Byers addresses the growing desire for Arctic exploitation and the dangers of mining or drilling on the environment. The absence of ice makes Arctic drilling more and more appealing. How will Canada, the USA or Russia respond to oil spills? If the Northwest Passage is deemed an international waterway and an oil spill occurs there, who will clean it up? Byers also had chapters on indigenous peoples and their rights, smuggling, nuclear weapons and Arctic search and rescue operations and responsibilities.

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