Reactions from other States are predictable: disagreement. Unsupportive reactions are almost everywhere. Many opine that this is an indication of Russia’s intention to regain its ‘glory’. Will this lead the world to a new kind of cold war? We can only guess.
Meanwhile, Australia also does similar movement. It is claiming the Antarctic as part of its continental shelf. Australia officially declared its claim at the end of 2004 and also has, by now, been receiving unsupportive comments from other States including the US, Japan, and Timor Leste.
Is it true that Russia is claiming the North Pole and Australia is fighting for the Antarctic? If so, is there any legal base or it is just another manifestation of greediness? Let’s have a look at this from a different angel.
We are talking about the claim of maritime jurisdiction by coastal States. It is the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, where Russia and Australia are parties to, which governs coastal States’ maritime jurisdiction. The Convention asserts that coastal States are entitled to several maritime jurisdictions measured from their baselines, including territorial sea (12 nautical miles, M), exclusive economic zone (200 M) and continental shelf (CS). CS is seabed area where coastal States can exercise their sovereign rights for natural resources exploitation. Oil and gas are apparently the main reason behind the claim over CS, considering that the seabed area potentially reserves a lot of oil and gas deposits. In the North Pole, for example, around 10 billion tons of equivalent fuel is possible for exploitation.
A coastal State is entitled to continental shelf beyond its territorial sea limit to the outer edge of its continental margin, or up to a distance of 200 M from its baseline in case the outer edge of its continental margin does not reach that distance. In addition, article 76 of the Convention also enables coastal States to claim continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles (extended continental shelf, ECS). For this purpose, coastal States should make their submission coupled with supporting data to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLSC). In other words, claim beyond 200 M cannot be made unilaterally and it has to obtain the commission’s recommendation in order to be valid. The commission consists of 21 experts in the fields of geodesy, geology, hydrography, and geophysics, coming from the UNCLOS States Parties. The latest election was in June 2007 serving for a five-year term.
Submitting the outer limits of ECS is by no mean an easy task. An acceptable claim should be accompanied by data describing the position of foot of continental slope (FOS) and sedimentary rock thickness of the seabed area of interest. The outer limits of the submitted CS should be the line delineating 1% sediment thickness or the line with a distance of 60 nautical miles from the FOS. In addition, UNCLOS also asserts that the outer limits of CS should not exceed 350 M from the baseline or the line of 100 M from the 2,500 meter isobaths (water depth).
For those whose expertise is not in the relevant area (i.e. geodesy, geology, hydrography, geophysics), it might be difficult to understand this technical delineation procedure. However, it is, at least, now clear that claiming ECS requires coastal States to go through a highly complicated process and yet it has to be recommended by the Commission in order for the outer limits to be final and binding. Placing a national flag has nothing to do with the claim, even though it is not going to say “don’t do that”. Analogously, the US did leave its flag on the moon back in 1969, but it does not mean that the Moon belongs to the US.ate
Russia and Australia, in fact, are claiming ECS. What they are doing is legally acceptable as UNCLOS facilitates them to do so. Russia, for its part, submitted its first claim in 2001 but does not seem to satisfy the Commission. This current expedition is to obtain stronger technical evidences for resubmission in 2009. Meanwhile, a similar claim submitted by Australia in 2004 also encompasses the seabed in Antarctic. No recommendation has been made by the commission so far.
In conclusion, Russia and Australia may legally submit their claim over the North Pole and Antarctic but they still have to provide technical evidence for their entitlement. It is then the task of CLCS to make recommendation. Without recommendation, no claim is valid. In addition, the existing treaty, such as the Antarctic Treaty should also be taken into account.
With regard to Russia’s claim, it is worth noting that Russia is not the only States that may claim ECS in the Arctic region as the it is surrounded by five States, namely Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada, the US (in clockwise order). Russia’s claim to the seabed has to consider the entitlement of the four other States. As opined by McNab (2004), it will be good if the polar States can make a coordinated of even a joint submission to the Commission. If a submission made by one of the polar States is unacceptable to other States, the Commission will not make any recommendation and leave it until multilateral agreements is achieved among the States in question.
In other perspective, the ‘aggressiveness’ of Russia and Australia is also an alarm and motivation for other States. Some American politicians, for example, encourage the US senate to ratify the UNCLOS. By being the party to UNCLOS, the US can at least take part in saying “no” to excessive claim by coastal States, as implied by Senator Richard Lugar.
Similar to Russia and Australia, which intend to extend their maritime claims up to the North Pole and Antarctic, Indonesia too has a chance for extension in some locations. Their maneuver, to an extent, may motivate Indonesia to speed up the currently ongoing preparation. It might not be for the proof of glory, at least there exist reasons of economics and sovereign rights for which a submission should be made. Let’s see what may happen.