On Tuesday 25th February, at the University of Akureyri, Erik Franckx gave a concise speech for the „Law Forum" on „the Arctic and Mass media" to underline the importance of studying legal regimes and of doing research in the region.
The debate in the mass media on the Arctic often tries to come up with nice black and white pictures with a view of catching the attention of the general public.
These stories, however, more than once do no really reflect the underlying legal reality. More disturbing in this respect is moreover the fact that these stories are sometimes even to be encountered in the specialized literature. More research on the Arctic and its legal regime seems consequently a necessity in order to make a reasoned judgement as to the kind of future action to take with respect to this region. As many seem to focus on the necessity to urgently develop a more stringent legal system to properly cover and protect the Arctic region, professor Franckx suggested that a good reading of the Law and a correct study of legal regimes applicable to the Arctic may reveal that the existing legal framework properly deals with today's challenges.
To support his argument, professor Franckx recalled few recent episodes that have uselessly aroused big debates and controversies in the region, often described by mass media, and even more regrettably by specialized literature as already mentioned above, as omens for a forthcoming new „Cold War" era in the Arctic. This was the case, for instance, when media reported and commented Russia's perilous expedition to the seabed at the North Pole to plant its flag on the underwater Lomonosov Ridge in 2007. Because of a supposed lack on the existing legal framework to govern claims in the region, the event was indeed described as a clear claim by the Kremlin over the Arctic and its resources and even a symbolic move to enhance Russian position over the other Arctic States, potentially leading to a new war on Arctic resources.
Conversely, a careful reading of the law and an accurate description of the facts clearly suggest that Russian' expedition to the North Pole has no legal value per se as regard claims over the region. The 1982 UNCLOS, indeed, clearly regulates States' claims on submarine areas by providing an accurate description of technical limits applicable in order to claim Continental shelf. In addition, under the 1982 UNCLOS, it has been also established the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), an autonomous body established within the framework of the 1982 UNCLOS, exactly to act as a watchdog in order that the coastal states do not trespass upon the Area, i.e. the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, where the principle of the common heritage of mankind is applicable.
As the absolute majority of states, Russia today clearly complies with 1982 UNCLOS. Indeed, in 1991, Russia submitted a proposal to claim part of the Arctic seabed to the CLCS, but it was rejected because of the insufficiency of the data submitted. Under this view, it is rather evident that the 2007 expedition should be better interpreted as a mission aiming at collecting further data to submit a new claim, but definitely not as a per se claim over the region.
The professor indeed concluded that there is not an urgent need to develop a more stringent regime for the Arctic at present, and that a good reading of the law and an accurate study on legal regimes may actually provide an useful key to understand and properly explain Arctic issues.
Erik Franckx is research professor, President of the Department of International and European Law, and Director of the Centre for International Law, and Vice-dean for internationalization of the Faculty of Law and Criminology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He has been also appointed by Belgium as member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague, The Netherlands; as expert in marine scientific research for use in special arbitration under the 1982 United Nation Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); as legal expert in the Advisory Body of Experts of the Law of the Sea of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and as expert in maritime boundary delimitation to the International Hydrographic Organization.