Strict adherence to all provisions of Svalbard Treaty to guarantee good-neighborly relations
28 April 2021. PenzaNews. Russian and foreign experts are increasingly paying attention to the situation around the Svalbard archipelago, which international legal status is enshrined in the treaty of February 9, 1920, and note the non-compliance with a number of provisions of this document designed to protect the legitimate interests of all states parties to the agreement.
Photo: Hannes Grobe, Wikipedia.org
In their opinion, while claiming “full and absolute sovereignty” over Svalbard, Norway ignores such important provisions as the guarantees of “equal liberty of access and entry” to the archipelago and the possibility of conducting commercial and economic operations there “on a footing of absolute equality.”
Thus, the signatory states are concerned about the decision of Oslo to extend the national continental legislation of the country to Svalbard. The law on environmental protection in the archipelago, adopted in 2001, essentially establishes a permissive procedure for economic activity, and in a significant part of its territory it is completely prohibited. The Russian side fears that an even greater expansion of environmental legislation in the future may affect the work of the Arktikugol company, which ensures the operation of the thermal power plant in Barentsburg, without which the inhabitants of the settlement would have to be evacuated due to the harsh climate.
In addition, Norway considers the 200-mile zone, shelf and seabed surrounding Svalbard to be an area not covered by the 1920 treaty, and sets its own rules there, in particular by distributing concession areas to interested oil companies located within the so-called “ Spitsbergen square.” Apart from Russia, other parties to the agreement, including Great Britain, Iceland and Spain, do not agree with this state of affairs.
The most acute problem is caused by the Norwegian ban on the use of helicopters. Oslo’s position is that this kind of transport can only be used for tasks related to the coal industry. Thus, the country’s authorities artificially created a transport monopoly on Svalbard, forcing Russia to use the services of Norwegian carriers to deliver scientists or tourists to the archipelago.
In addition, in accordance with the treaty, the archipelago should not be used for military purposes, however, experts do not rule out that Oslo will attempt to revise the demilitarized status of the archipelago. Various events held in Longyearbyen with the participation of NATO representatives cannot but cause concern for the parties concerned.
Commenting on the details of the centenary agreement, Christopher Rossi, Adjunct faculty member, University of Iowa College of Law, reminded that Norway’s sovereignty is secured by a treaty in return for a number of important conditions.
“The Svalbard Treaty is an unusual document as it accords Norway sovereignty over the archipelago in exchange for equal use by other signatories to the treaty. This quid pro quo is predicated on non-militarization, which on occasion gets called into question by certain weather and safety devices that appear to Russia to have dual use capability,” the expert told PenzaNews.
He also drew attention to the unusual natural conditions of this area.
“The Arctic is a rapidly changing geospace, given climate change and a rapidly receding polar ice cap. Mineral and living resources previously entombed by the ice cap are becoming increasingly available for purposes of extraction. To prevent a coming competition over these resources, and over the waters and undersea shelf adjacent to Svalbard’s territorial sea, states will need to maintain good neighborly relations,” Christopher Rossi explained.
“This prospect could be challenging given Norway’s assertion of sovereignty over these adjacent resources and competing claims by the European Union, Russia, and other states. The Arctic is fast becoming of global interest – beyond the specific interest of the circumpolar states,” he added.
In turn, Pal Steigan, Norwegian politician, publisher, writer, independent entrepreneur in the field of culture and information technology, reminded that the Svalbard treaty was directly influenced by the First World War.
“Even the big powers wanted to limit military activity in the Arctic, so as a neutral country under the world war and a peaceful, democratic country Norway was given sovereignty, but under the condition of seeing to it that the archipelago remained demilitarized. This was a good idea then, and it remains a good idea now. It is very important that Norway remain loyal to the provisions, or else it would open a Pandora’s box of bad events,” the expert said.
According to him, the peaceful and equal presence of states in the archipelago is the only correct way of interaction.
“Potentially the Arctic could become a war zone with direct influence on three continents. This is dangerous indeed. There are rich natural resources in the high north and a rush for them without fetters could drive more conflict and war. So cooperation is the only alternative,” Pal Steigan said.
In his opinion, it is very destructive that the current Norwegian government has let US set up bases on its soil.
“It brings Norway into the crosshairs in a possible war and it damages the trust built in generations. Norway and Russia have never been enemies; neither should they be in the future,” the analyst stressed.
Meanwhile, Clive Williams from the Australian National University also called the desire of the parties to the 1920 treaty to keep the archipelago as a demilitarized territory reasonable.
“The main activities there are said to be coal mining, tourism, and academic research. The Norwegian subsidized coal mining can no longer be justified for environmental reasons, let alone economic reasons, so tourism and research seem to be the most promising sources of income for the less than 3,000 inhabitants,” he suggested.
At the same time, in his opinion, in the current conditions, it is time for the countries to start working to update the provisions of the existing treaty in the field of the peaceful development of the archipelago.
“The best outcome for both the residents and the planet would be a new international treaty that provides better protection of the area from further exploitation, including banning fishing and hunting, and the area’s preservation for future international eco-tourism,” Clive Williams said.
Rachael Johnstone, Professor of Law at University of Akureyri, stressed that all international treaties must be fully respected and upheld.
“To do otherwise is to threaten the very structure of international law and the international security that it brings,” the expert explained.
However, in her opinion, there is no immediate threat to the Svalbard Treaty as all parties are committed to its long-term success – in fact, it has endured for an entire century without significant modification.
“There are different views on how it should be interpreted and applied in the maritime areas around the archipelago – in light of changes in the law of the sea in the past century – but these are managed peacefully. Furthermore, there is no challenge to the Svalbard Treaty from non-parties – in other words, there are no third states objecting to the principles of the treaty or challenging Norwegian sovereignty,” Rachael Johnstone added.
She also reminded that the treaty prohibits the building of naval bases or fortifications and use of the archipelago for “warlike purposes” but this does not preclude any “dual use” technology as long as it is not used for “warlike purposes.”
“The Svalbard Treaty is only one part of a complex web of cooperation in the Arctic. The considerations of good-neighbourliness and [hostile] language – let alone actions- that can be interpreted as “aggressive” apply to all international cooperation. Military posturing by governments is often aimed at a domestic audience in order to win support but can have negative impacts on international cooperation. Sometimes, politicians do not think it through; but at other times, it is a calculated strategy. They will risk international trust in order to win votes at home,” the professor noted.
According to her, there is a strong will amongst the Arctic States and Arctic Peoples to keep the lines of communication open, even when there are deep disagreements on other issues.
“The Svalbard Treaty is a great example of this – something that has withstood a World War and a Cold War and now includes parties as deeply opposed on global, political and security issues as the US and North Korea,” the expert concluded.