Is the search-and-rescue treaty a model for Arctic co-operation?

The search-and-rescue treaty signed by the Arctic Council could have a positive impact on efforts to resolve sovereignty issues involving Canada and the other circumpolar countries.
The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent sails past a iceberg in Lancaster Sound on July 11, 2008. The icebreaker was on its annual voyage through Canada's Arctic that includes patrols through the Northwest Passage. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

When the eight countries of the Arctic Council signed an international search-and-rescue treaty in Greenland Thursday, they made a deal few could argue with.

After all, who could dispute having a plan that would co-ordinate how to respond if a plane crashes or a cruise ship sinks in an Arctic that is becoming more accessible year round?

But is this a true first step towards resolving the many disputes and claims to the Arctic's vast riches?

The first legally binding agreement reached by the council — which includes Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark — explicitly states that it does not set a precedent for resolving Arctic sovereignty disputes.

But experts are saying it continues a movement towards international co-operation in the Far North that has been building for a little while now, including last year's diplomatic meetings between Canada and the U.S. over the border dispute in the Beaufort Sea.

"Everything helps because there's this momentum towards co-operation," says Michael Byers, an international law professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of Who Owns the Arctic?

Missed opportunity

Byers considers Thursday's Arctic Council meeting a "big deal," especially considering the high-profile attendance of representatives such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

"These are serious people whose time is guarded very closely," he points out, "and they're devoting three hours to essentially a planning session on the future of Arctic co-operation."

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq represented Canada at the Arctic Council meeting in Greenland in May 2011. (Reuters)

Unfortunately, Canada's foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, lost his seat in the May 2 election and was replaced at this meeting in Greenland by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the MP for Nunavut. 

"Leona Aglukkaq is certainly better than many of the other alternatives, but she will not, she cannot as far as I can see, contribute in a high-level way to the specialized foreign policy discussion," said Byers. 

"It affects the perception of us as a credible and serious partner on Arctic issues," he said. "We may be missing an opportunity to secure leverage with regards to co-operation with the Russians, and co-operation with the Americans, both of whom are absolutely vital partners in the Arctic."

Problems in the past

Four years ago, Russia staked its claim to supremacy in the Arctic and to much of its vast oil and gas reserves.

Russia even planted a titanium flag on the ocean floor and argued that an underwater ridge connected the country directly to the North Pole, suggesting the North Pole was part of its continental land bank. 

The U.S., for one, does not recognize the Russian assertion and has its own claims in the region. Companies from ExxonMobil Corp. to Royal Dutch Shell plc also want to get in on the action.

In addition to the boundary dispute involving an area of the Beaufort Sea between Yukon and Alaska, the U.S. and Canada disagree on the status of the Northwest Passage, which Canada maintains falls within its territorial waters.

Canada has also been at odds with Denmark over Hans Island, a 1.3-square-kilometre rocky knoll between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Byers hopes there can be a quick resolution to the Hans Island dispute, which has been the focus of diplomatic discussions on and off for six years.

"There's no excuse for failure of a negotiated conclusion because the dispute is only about the land. It's not about the water or the seabed around the island."

'Perfectly positioned'

The Arctic has become a focus for Harper, who has made annual treks north to demonstrate Canada's sovereignty there.

Harper's majority win on May 2 could also provide another opportunity toward resolving the Northwest Passage dispute, Byers suggested.

Harper is now "perfectly positioned" to open discussions with the U.S. on the status of the passage, Byers said, noting how in the minority government situation of the past few years there had been a concern that even opening talk on the topic would carry domestic political risk.

While Canada has yet to resolve those sovereignty disputes, other countries have made moves to sort out conflicts.

"Canada is playing catch-up here," said Byers, noting for example that Norway and Russia reached a "very significant" boundary treaty in the Barents Sea earlier this year.

Overall, though, the circumpolar situation is "remarkably good," he said.

'Gorilla in the room'

"We don't know if there are going to be any disputes in the central Arctic Ocean because no country has finished the seabed mapping yet." But Canada is working with other countries to gather that scientific data, "which is a very good sign."

Still, Byers cautions about the "800-pound gorilla in the room."

"Ultimately this is a big climate change story," he said.

"It's important for everyone to realize that the only reason the Arctic is in the headlines is because of the incredibly fast pace of climate change in the Arctic, which is making the region much more accessible and therefore requiring countries to respond with things like search-and-rescue treaties."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

With files from The Associated Press