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High North Policy

Norwegian interests in the northern areas should give way to internationally accepted rules with an emphasis on environmental safety and protection.


During the past year, we have seen a significant increase in the temperature in the Norwegian northern area debate. After a separate public inquiry was presented (Orheimutvalget 2003), the government of Bondevik finally presented a report to the Storting this spring. Declared goals were stronger focus and wider focus in the north. The Government Stoltenberg states in the founding document from Soria Moria that the Northern Territories will be the most important strategic focus area in the years to come. This emphasizes both the need for increased readiness and increased knowledge, and the red-green partners present two strategic ways to meet the challenges:

  • The Government will seek international acceptance for Norwegian views on Svalbard, fishing zone, oil and gas extraction and good environmental management
  • The Government will strengthen the people-to-people cooperation between Norway and Russia, involvement, information, and democratic participation in civil society, among other things through the Barents cooperation

Through recent dramatic events related to the trawler "Elektron", it is more than clear that Norway must also put the need for direct talks with Russian authorities on the management of the Northern Territory's resources at the top of its political agenda.

Dramatic perspectives

In much of the media debate on the High North, it is the energy policy perspectives that will be focused. Not least, the newspaper "Northern Lights" has contributed to this. In this debate it is argued by many of the actors that only an active assertion of Norwegian interests through exploration drilling and subsequent extraction of oil and gas discoveries can bring Norway "on the track" and will enable us to assert our geostrategic shelf interests in the north. We know that Norway's managerial role under the Svalbard Treaty does not give us a basis for national assertion on Svalbard's shelf. Therefore, Norway has chosen to practice non-discriminatory management of fishery resources in this area. The Convention on the Law of the Sea, with its plinth and center line provisions, is nevertheless the international legal document that has largely laid the ground for turning Norway into an oil power. This may eventually prove to apply to other valuable resources on and below the seabed.

We also know that the High North will be the part of the globe that is most strongly and dramatically affected by changes that have their cause in global warming. This summer, for the first time, ships were flown ice-free all the way to the North Pole. Over the course of 30-50 years, forecasts show a rise in temperature which means that the majority of the ice cap in the north will be gone for a large part of the year. This will have major consequences for humans and animals living in the Arctic, and the process will be intensified by a dramatic increase in methane emissions from tundra thawing. Methane is next to CO2 the most important greenhouse gas. Today, there is little doubt in the relevant professional circles that human activities, especially the consumption of fossil fuels, are an important cause of the greenhouse effect. We therefore know that continued or increasing oil recovery, oil transport and oil consumption will amplify the effect. Nevertheless, the authorities in most countries choose to distinguish between the greenhouse problems and the basic economic activity on which our societies are built. This is how you can continue "business as usual", practically with blindfolds and ears.

An important part of this future picture for the Arctic is new transport lines between Europe / the east coast of America and Asia / Oceania. The Northwest Passage between Greenland and Canada will for navigational reasons be less attractive than the Northeast Passage around Northern Norway and Siberia towards the Bering Strait. In the longer term, the polar basin itself will be navigable for ship traffic on a year-round basis. Such ship traffic through the Arctic will of course not be able to develop without us experiencing significant environmental pollution of this area. International carriers are well under way with their preparations, and we can expect gigantic growth in shipping traffic through the Arctic.

Russia's position

Russia is the undisputed great power in the Arctic. Both through its research efforts and its population density in the north, but also through its 16 icebreakers, its naval presence in the Northern Fleet, and its security interest in the area, Russia is dominant. This is not changed by the fact that Russia in recent years has had economic problems and has not been able to put sufficient operating assets behind this specific interest in the High North. The fact that Norway in 1920 as part of the settlement after the First World War was assigned administrative responsibility for Svalbard through the Svalbard Treaty, was probably as much justified by our western connection as by our business position in the area. The revolution in Russia sent shock waves into the Western Hemisphere. The victors after World War I obviously did not want to give the Bolsheviks such a prominent position to the west as the administrative responsibility for Svalbard would give them.

Russia is today our most important partner in the management of northern marine resources. Wandering fish stocks are largely of common interest. And Russia has major economic interests invested in establishing the best possible environmentally friendly extraction of oil and gas on the shelf in the north. Russia will therefore be the absolutely central power to deal with when trying to put in place a clarified regime both for the shelf and the sea areas around Svalbard, and for the loophole / gray zone problem. A positive proposal from the Russian Minister of Natural Resources, Yuri Trutnev (referred to in Nordlys 16.09.05) signals a willingness to cooperate that is worth noting.

Other participants

The term "northern area" is as used in Norwegian debate somewhat imprecise, but seems to cover the area where Norway and Russia have direct interests. It is nevertheless a fact that Iceland is a fishing power in the north, Denmark / Greenland has significant interests, and not least Canada and the USA / Alaska which border directly on the polar basin. All these states – which today participate in the Arctic Council – are natural participants in a process leading up to a consensus regime in the north. Similarly, both Japan and the EU have signaled significant interest in what is happening in the Arctic. Germany has traditionally had significant research efforts in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Scott Borgersen, who teaches maritime subjects, political geography and American foreign policy at the Coast Guard Academy in the USA, came in a post in NYT on 19.10.05 with interesting thoughts about the role of the USA. He points firstly to the environmental changes that are taking place in the Arctic, including how the melting of ice makes new areas available for the extraction of natural resources. He further points out that the sea route across the North Pole will shorten the sailing distance between central ports in the east and west by at least 5000 nautical miles, and he states that the United States lacks a policy for the Arctic. "The United States must articulate a clear, sustainable and environmentally conscious Arctic policy that is adapted to the changes that are now taking place in polar regions. As the Arctic lacks a comprehensive legal framework, in line with the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which put an end to territorial claims and established a demilitarized region and international scientific cooperation, the United States should play a leading diplomatic role in establishing legal rules for the growing international race for the Arctic. "

What needs to be done?

As mentioned, Norway has the High North at the heart of the agenda. This must mean that the government also as soon as possible gathers resources to establish more professional environments that will systematically deal with High North issues. This will be an absolutely necessary strengthening of the Norwegian decision-making basis further in the political process. The first phase now seems to have to be clarifying negotiations between Norway and Russia. Agreement here will be to the advantage of both countries before the next phase, namely negotiations on governance rules for the entire circumpolar Arctic. From the outset, the government should use the enlarged Foreign Affairs Committee to involve the broadest possible cross-party basis for the negotiations. In the longer term, it is unlikely that an international legal regime in the north can be established without involving the UN. This will be a natural continuation of the UN Treaty of Antarctica in 1961 and the Convention on the Law of the Sea of ​​1982. In my view, there are good reasons why Norway in this process should be primarily interested in establishing internationally accepted rules for the Arctic with significant emphasis on environmental security and protection rather than maximum payoff for Norwegian national interests.

We are heading towards exciting times in the north!

Arne-Johan Johansen heads SV's international committee in Troms.

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