Several international agreements deal with issues specific to the Arctic region or/and are particularly relevant for addressing various Arctic-related matters. These agreements have been shortly introduced here, in chronological order and with links to original texts (click on the title to be redirected to the full text).
The table ("click" to enlarge it, "right click" to download it) provides a quick overview of the Arctic States' adherence to the above-mentioned treaties.
The Svalbard Treaty was signed in Paris on 9 February 1920.
The treaty establishes Norway’s full and undivided sovereignty over Svalbard. Svalbard is part of the Kingdom of Norway, and it is Norway that ratifies and enforces the legislation that is to apply to the archipelago. Nevertheless, the treaty does include some conditions restricting the enactment of Norwegian sovereignty, and Norwegian authorities are required to see to it that Norwegian legislation and administration respect these conditions.
The 8 Arctic States are all parties to the treaty.
The purpose of the Convention sets out the ability of the IWC to establish regulations "such as are necessary to carry out the objectives and purposes of the Convention and to provide for the conservation, development, and optimum utilization of whale resources. "The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed in 1946 and it is the International Whaling Commission’s founding document (IWC). The Convention includes a legally binding Schedule which, amongst other things, sets out catch limits for commercial and aboriginal subsistence whaling. The Schedule is an integral part of the Convention, but its provisions, for example, catch limits, may be amended by the Commission. In practice, amendments to the Schedule are almost always agreed at the Commission’s Annual Meeting" (https://iwc.int). All the Arctic States are part of the Convention, but Canada, by note of June 24, 1981, gave notice of Canada's withdrawal from the Convention effective June 30, 1982.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington on 1 December 1959 by the twelve countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. It entered into force in 1961 and has since been acceded to by many other nations. The total number of Parties to the Treaty is now 54.
Some important provisions of the Treaty:
- Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only - Art. I
- Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end… shall continue - Art. II
- Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available - Art. III
Among the signatories of the Treaty were seven countries - Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom - with territorial claims, sometimes overlapping. Other countries do not recognize any claims. The US and Russia maintain a “basis of claim”. All positions are explicitly protected in Article IV, which preserves the status quo:
No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.
To promote the objectives and ensure the observance of the provisions of the Treaty, "All areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations, and equipment within those areas … shall be open at all times to inspection " (Art. VII).
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was adopted in 1965 by the UN General Assembly and entered into force in 1969. With 175 state parties as of 2014, CERD is one of the most widely ratified human rights treaties. The CERD defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
All Arctic States are party to the Convention
The ICCPR comprises all of the traditional human rights as they are known from historical documents such as the First Ten Amendments to the Constitution of the United States (1789/1791) and the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789). However, in perfect harmony with its sister instrument, Part I starts out with the right of self-determination which is considered to be the foundational stone of all human rights (article 1). Part II (articles 2 to 5) contains a number of general principles that apply across the board, among them, in particular, the prohibition of discrimination. Part III enunciates an extended list of rights, the first of which being the right to life (article 6)." (https://www.un.org/ola/).
The States agreed on the Convention "in accordance with the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, Recognizing that these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person." Among the several key principles contained in the Covenant, particularly relevant, especially for the Arctic context, is the first art.: "1. All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." The Arctic States have ratified the covenant, but the US, which has signed the Convention, has not ratified it.
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES or Washington Convention), Washington, US, 1973
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Because the trade in wild animals and plants crosses borders between countries, the effort to regulate it requires international cooperation to safeguard certain species from over-exploitation. CITES was conceived in the spirit of such cooperation. Today, it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens, fur coats, or dried herbs. All Arctic States are parties to the Convention.
The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is the main international convention covering prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes.
The MARPOL Convention was adopted on 2 November 1973 at IMO. The Protocol of 1978 was adopted in response to a spate of tanker accidents in 1976-1977. As the 1973 MARPOL Convention had not yet entered into force, the 1978 MARPOL Protocol absorbed the parent Convention. The combined instrument entered into force on 2 October 1983. In 1997, a Protocol was adopted to amend the Convention and a new Annex VI was added which entered into force on 19 May 2005. MARPOL has been updated by amendments through the years.
The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was signed by the Governments of Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America, i.e., by the five nations with the largest polar bear populations. Concluded in 1973, the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat (ACPB) was primarily developed as a response to commercial over-hunting of bears in some polar bear states, in particular, the United States (Alaska) and Norway (Svalbard)(1). The ACPB principally sought to address this problem by banning hunting (Article 1(1)) and, in particular, banning hunting using large motorized vessels and aircraft (Art. IV). Under the Agreement, harvesting may still occur for scientific purposes, conservation purposes and in connection with the management of other species (Art. III(1)). In addition, and most importantly, the ACPB contemplated the continuation of harvesting by indigenous peoples where this was already occurring (Alaska, Russia, Canada and Greenland). [Nigel Bankes, Polar Bears and International Law, in Natalia Loukacheva (ed.) Polar Law Textbook II]. The treaty is also often considered as an early proof of Arctic cooperation, as back at the time (1973), due to the Cold War, the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had little if any exchanges. However, they both signed the Agreement.
The SOLAS Convention in its successive forms is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships. The first version was adopted in 1914, in response to the Titanic disaster, the second in 1929, the third in 1948, and the fourth in 1960. The 1974 version includes the tacit acceptance procedure - which provides that an amendment shall enter into force on a specified date unless, before that date, objections to the amendment are received from an agreed number of Parties.
As a result the 1974 Convention has been updated and amended on numerous occasions. The Convention in force today is sometimes referred to as SOLAS, 1974, as amended.
The main objective of the SOLAS Convention is to specify minimum standards for the construction, equipment and operation of ships, compatible with their safety.
The Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution was the first international legally binding instrument to deal with problems of air pollution on a broad regional basis. It was signed in 1979 and entered into force in 1983. It has since been extended by eight specific protocols. The Convention is one of the central means for protecting our environment. It has, over the years, served as a bridge between different political systems and as a factor of stability in years of political change. It has substantially contributed to the development of international environmental law and has created the essential framework for controlling and reducing the damage to human health and the environment caused by transboundary air pollution. It is a successful example of what can be achieved through intergovernmental cooperation (http://www.unece.org/).
The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) is the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO) for the North East Atlantic, one of the most abundant fishing areas in the world. The area covered by the NEAFC Convention (i.e., Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in North-East Atlantic Fisheries) stretches from the southern tip of Greenland, east to the Barents Sea, and south to Portugal (see this on a map). The Convention was adopted on 18 November 1980 and entered into force in 1982. It replaced the earlier 1959 North-East Atlantic Fisheries Convention.
NEAFC’s objective is to ensure the long-term conservation and optimum utilization of the fishery resources in the Convention Area, providing sustainable economic, environmental, and social benefits. To this end, NEAFC adopts management measures for various fish stocks and control measures to ensure that they are properly implemented. NEAFC also adopts measures to protect other parts of the marine ecosystem from potential negative impacts of fisheries.
As the Arctic region consists of a large Ocean surrounded by land, the Law of the Sea becomes particularly relevant in this context. UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, is an international agreement that outlines a comprehensive regime of laws clarifying the rights and responsibilities of States in regard of the use of seas and oceans, and their resources. The treaty therefore regulates issues such as navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, legal status of resources on the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, passage of ships through narrow straits, conservation and management of living marine resources, protection of the marine environment, a marine research regime and, a more unique feature, a binding procedure for settlement of disputes between States. The US has not ratified the Convention.
ILO C169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, (ILO Convention No. 169 or C169), 1989C169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, (ILO Convention No. 169 or C169), 1989
Convention No.169 is a legally binding international instrument open to ratification, which deals specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. Today, it has been ratified by 20 countries. Once it ratifies the Convention, a country has one year to align legislation, policies and programs to the Convention before it becomes legally binding. Countries that have ratified the Convention are subject to supervision with regard to its implementation (www.ilo.org). Among the Arctic States, only Denmark and Norway have ratified it.
Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention), Espoo (FI) 1991
Environmental threats do not respect national borders. Governments have realized that to avert this danger they must notify and consult each other on all major projects under consideration that might have adverse environmental impact across borders. The Espoo Convention is a key step to bringing together all stakeholders to prevent environmental damage before it occurs. The Convention entered into force in 1997 (http://www.unece.org/). Among the Arctic states, Iceland, the Russian Federation, and the US have signed but not ratified it.
The Strategy is a declaration on the protection of the Arctic environment and is comprised of a number of component parts, beginning with a statement of objectives. These objectives establish the broad direction in which the eight Arctic countries intend to move. The objectives are accompanied by statements of principle that are designed to guide the actions of Arctic countries individually and collectively, as they move toward the achievement of the objectives. The Strategy also describes the problems and priorities that the eight Arctic countries agree need to be addressed at this time.
Tools, whether legal, scientific or administrative, are also reviewed in order to define appropriate mechanisms for implementation of the Strategy. This is particularly relevant to that section of the Strategy which defines the specific actions that the eight countries will undertake jointly or individually to deal with priority issues and pollution problems. The implementation of the Strategy will be carried out through national legislation and in 8 accordance with international law, including customary international law as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Finally, the Strategy outlines plans for future cooperation towards the implementation of the Strategy.
The Convention was adopted at the United Nations Headquarters, New York on 9 May 1992. In accordance with Article 20, it was open for signature at Rio de Janeiro from 4 to 14 June 1992, and thereafter at the United Nations Headquarters, New York, from 20 June 1992 to 19 June 1993. By that date, the Convention had received 166 signatures.
Signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Convention on Biological Diversity is dedicated to promoting sustainable development. Conceived as a practical tool for translating the principles of Agenda 21 into reality, the Convention recognizes that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals, and microorganisms and their ecosystems – it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live (www.cbd.int). Of all the Arctic States, only the US is not a party to the Convention.
A conference on cooperation in the Barents EuroArctic Region took place in Kirkenes, Norway, on 11 January 1993. The Ministers of Foreign Affairs or representatives of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the Commission of the European Communities participated in the conference, which was also attended by observers from the United States of America, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
The 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement marked a major step forward in the development of a comprehensive legal regime for the long-term conservation and sustainable use of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks. While further efforts are needed to ensure the full and effective implementation of the Agreement, it has already had a profound impact on fisheries governance since it entered into force in 2001.
The 1995 Agreement, which builds on the relevant provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, addresses problems relating to the management of high seas fisheries, as identified in Agenda 21 of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. According to Agenda 21, “there are problems of unregulated fishing, over-capitalization, excessive fleet size, vessel reflagging to escape controls, insufficiently selective gear, unreliable databases, and lack of sufficient cooperation among countries.” It called for action by States to cooperate in order to address “inadequacies in fishing practices.”
The Ottawa Declaration of the Arctic Council is a foundational document that was signed on September 19, 1996, in Ottawa, Canada. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum that aims to promote cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states, as well as with the indigenous communities of the region.
The Ottawa Declaration established the Arctic Council as a high-level forum for discussing and addressing issues related to sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic region. The declaration sets out the objectives, structure, and activities of the Arctic Council, and outlines the roles and responsibilities of its members and participants.
One of the key objectives of the Arctic Council, as stated in the Ottawa Declaration, is to promote environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic region. The council works to achieve this goal by encouraging scientific research and monitoring, promoting the sustainable use of natural resources, and supporting the conservation of Arctic ecosystems and biodiversity.
The Ottawa Declaration also emphasizes the importance of working in partnership with the indigenous peoples of the Arctic region. The declaration recognizes the traditional knowledge and expertise of these communities, and highlights the need for their participation and consultation in all aspects of Arctic governance and decision-making.
Overall, the Ottawa Declaration of the Arctic Council represents a significant milestone in international cooperation for the Arctic region and provides a framework for addressing the unique challenges and opportunities facing this important and rapidly changing part of the world.
Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Kyoto Protocol), Kyoto, Japan, 11 December 1997
The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which commits its Parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets. Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities."
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997 and entered into force on 16 February 2005. The detailed rules for the implementation of the Protocol were adopted at COP 7 in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2001, and are referred to as the "Marrakesh Accords." Its first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. In 2011, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper withdrew Canada from the Kyoto Protocol.
As set out in Article 1, the objective of the Stockholm Convention is to protect human health and the environment from persistent organic pollutants.
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife, and have harmful impacts on human health or on the environment.
Exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to disease, and damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Given their long-range transport, no one government acting alone can protect its citizens or its environment from POPs.
In response to this global problem, the Stockholm Convention, which was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in 2004, requires its parties to take measures to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment.
All Arctic States are party to the Convention, but the US, which signed but not ratified in 2001. The treaty does not apply to Greenland.
The Ballast Water Management Convention, adopted in 2004, aims to prevent the spread of harmful aquatic organisms from one region to another, by establishing standards and procedures for the management and control of ships' ballast water and sediments.
Under the Convention, all ships in international traffic are required to manage their ballast water and sediments to a certain standard, according to a ship-specific ballast water management plan. All ships will also have to carry a ballast water record book and an international ballast water management certificate. The ballast water management standards will be phased in over a period of time. As an intermediate solution, ships should exchange ballast water mid-ocean. However, eventually, most ships will need to install an onboard ballast water treatment system.
International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments is not yet in force. It will enter into force 12 months after ratification by 30 States, representing 35 percent of world merchant shipping tonnage.
All Arctic states are parties to the Convention but Iceland and the US. The convention does not apply to Faroe and Greenland.
At the invitation of the Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Premier of Greenland, representatives of the five coastal States bordering on the Arctic Ocean - Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America - met at the political level on 28 May 2008 in Ilulissat, Greenland, to hold discussions, They adopted the Ilulissat Declaration.
This framework provides a solid foundation for responsible management by the five coastal States and other users of this Ocean through national implementation and application of relevant provisions. We therefore see no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean. We will keep abreast of the developments in the Arctic Ocean and continue to implement appropriate measures.
Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (SAR or Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement), Nuuk, Greenland, 2011
SAR is an international agreement on search and rescue cooperation in the Arctic, signed by all 8 Arctic States (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the U.S) in Nuuk, Greenland, 12 May 2011, but has come into force in January 2013. SAR is the first ever legally binding document elaborated under the auspices of the Arctic Council and the first truly pan-Arctic legally binding document (the only other multilateral Arctic binding document, the 1973 Polar Bear Agreement, was signed by only five of the eight Arctic States – Canada, Denmark, Norway, the USA, and the USSR).
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. It was agreed at the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Geneva, Switzerland at 7 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, 19 January 2013.
The major highlights of the Minamata Convention on Mercury include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, control measures on air emissions, and the international regulation of the informal sector for artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Minamata Convention is not yet in force (it will enter into force 90 days after it has been ratified by 50 nations).
So far (February 2016), only the U.S. among the Arctic States has ratified the Convention. All the others, but Iceland, have signed it (but not ratified).
Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, Kiruna, Sweden, 2013
This second pan-Arctic agreement (signed by all 8 Arctic States) has “the objective to strengthen cooperation, coordination, and mutual assistance among the Parties on oil pollution preparedness and response in the Arctic in order to protect the marine environment from pollution by oil” (art. 1). Indeed, “each Party shall maintain a national system for responding promptly and effectively to oil pollution incidents. This system shall take into account particular activities and locales most likely to give rise to or suffer an oil pollution incident and anticipated risks to areas of special ecological significance and shall include at a minimum a national contingency plan or plans for preparedness and response to oil pollution incidents. Such contingency plan or plans shall include the organizational relationship of the various bodies involved, whether public or private, taking into account guidelines developed pursuant to this Agreement and other relevant international agreements” (art.4.1).
IMO has adopted the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) and related amendments to make it mandatory under both the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). The Polar Code entered into force on 1st January 2017. This marks a historic milestone in the Organization’s work to protect ships and people aboard them, both seafarers and passengers, in the harsh environment of the waters surrounding the two poles.
The Polar Code and SOLAS amendments were adopted during the 94th session of IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), in November 2014; the environmental provisions and MARPOL amendments were adopted during the 68th session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in May 2015.
The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 Parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, France, on 12 December 2015. It entered into force on 4 November 2016.
Its overarching goal is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” However, in recent years, world leaders have stressed the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of this century. That is because the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that crossing the 1.5°C threshold risks unleashing far more severe climate change impacts, including more frequent and severe droughts, heatwaves, and rainfall. To limit global warming to 1.5°C, greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest and decline 43% by 2030. The Paris Agreement is a landmark in the multilateral climate change process because, for the first time, a binding agreement brings all nations together to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.
Signed by Representatives of the Arctic Council at the 10th Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska on 11th May 2017.
The purpose of this Declaration is to reaffirm the commitment to maintain peace, stability, and constructive cooperation in the Arctic, Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the AC and its emergence as the preeminent intergovernmental forum for the Arctic Region, and affirming the commitment to further strengthen the Arctic Council and its activities, Reaffirming our commitment to the well-being of the inhabitants of the Arctic, to sustainable development and to the protection of the Arctic environment, Recognizing the rights of Arctic indigenous peoples and the unique role of the Permanent Participants within the AC, as well as the commitment to consult and cooperate in good faith with Arctic indigenous peoples and to support their meaningful engagement in the AC activities, Acknowledging the contributions of local authorities, and the interests of all Arctic residents and communities in the work of the AC, Further recognizing that activities taking place outside the Arctic region, including activities occurring in Arctic States are the main contributors to climate change effects and pollution in the Arctic, and underlining the need for action at all levels, Noting with concern that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average, resulting in widespread social, environmental, and economic impacts in the Arctic and worldwide, and the pressing and increasing need for mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience, Noting the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change and its implementation, and reiterating the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants, and Reaffirming the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the need for their realization by 2030.
Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation signed at the Fairbanks Ministerial meeting, 11 May 2017.
At the 8th Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2013, Ministers of the Arctic States mandated the creation of a Task Force "to work towards an arrangement on improved scientific research cooperation among the eight Arctic States". The culmination of this work came at the 10th Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska on 11th May 2017, with the signature of the "Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation".
The purpose of this Agreement is to enhance cooperation in Scientific Activities in order to increase effectiveness and efficiency in the development of scientific knowledge about the Arctic.
The legally binding Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean was signed in Ilulissat, Greenland on October 3rd, 2018. It entered into force on 25 June 2021. The agreement commits the parties to not authorize any vessel flying its flag to engage in commercial fishing in the high seas portion of the central Arctic Ocean. The agreement will be in place for up to sixteen years, renewable in increments of five years.
This agreement provides a framework for the parties to cooperate to better understand the ecosystems in and adjacent to the central Arctic Ocean. It prevents commercial fishing from occurring until adequate scientific information is available to inform decision-making in relation to the viability and sustainability of any potential future fishing activities in the agreement area. Parties intend to meet at least every two years to review implementation progress and the scientific information developed through a joint program of scientific research and monitoring.