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Russia: Polar Expedition Means 'Very Little' For Territorial Claims

Russia's NTV television showed the submersible planting the flag (epa) August 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian explorers have successfully dived to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and planted a Russian flag directly under the North Pole. But as Lindsay Parson -- head of the Law of the Sea Group at the National Oceanography Center in Southampton, United Kingdom -- tells RFE/RL correspondent Michael Scollon, the expedition has little bearing in terms of legal claims to the territory.

RFE/RL: What is the current status of that particular territory? Is the North Pole not in international waters?

Lindsay Parson: At the moment there is a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone manned by the five countries [that border the Arctic Ocean: Denmark via Greenland, Russia, Canada, the United States, and Norway.] And because it is an enormous, semi-enclosed sea, that 200-mile limit links up all the way around. So it is what is left in the middle of that linked 200-nautical-mile limit that is at question at the moment. And that is about 300,000 or 400,000 square kilometers, so it's a significant amount of area. And that is the area that has the potential to be claimed by one or more of the coastal states.

The expedition is a "fantastic scientific achievement," but "means very little in terms of a legal claim to maritime territory," Parson said.

RFE/RL: What does Russia's planting its flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole mean in legal terms?

Parson: In a very straight answer to you, it means very little in terms of the legal claim to maritime territory. It's a tremendous scientific and logistical endeavor to do what those guys have done, and I take my hat off to them, but in terms of claiming the seabed and any sovereign rights in terms of any of its resources -- that is a completely separate and maritime legal process which is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1982, and which Russia is a signatory party to. And they have to develop a scientific case based on the criteria that are inside the convention in order to claim that area of the Arctic Ocean as part of their sovereign territory.

RFE/RL: Is this the first time Russia has tried to claim the territory?

Parson: They had a go at this already in 2001, where they put a claim in to the commission that examines these claims, and they weren't able to supply enough information to support the claim. So it looks like right now they are trying to get more data to support a resubmission.

RFE/RL: How can a state make a claim beyond its economic zone?

Parson: Under the convention, international law allows coastal states to have 200-nautical-miles exclusive economic zone. So, in fact, all of the five countries that face into the Arctic Ocean all have a 200-nautical-mile zone of exclusive economic resource expiration exploitation. It's beyond that 200 nautical miles that coastal states -- if there are the right characteristics of the sea floor -- these coastal states are able to extend beyond 200 nautical miles this sovereignty to mineral resources on the seabed and below the seabed. They don't get the fish beyond 200 nautical miles, but they get the minerals that are on the seabed and below the seabed. And, of course, for hydrocarbons and oil and minerals and so on that's very interesting.

RFE/RL: Can you explain the process by which a country would make a territorial claim?

Parson: The process by which the coastal states would [make a sovereignty claim] would be to collect geological and geophysical data -- that's samples and geophysical information about the shape of the sea floor and what lies beneath the sea floor. And they put this data to the formulae -- the rules, if you like, the criteria -- that are embedded in the convention [on the Law of the Sea]. And they use the formulae that are in there to calculate an outer limit.

So they can't go on for ever and ever, but they can go out to a limit which is prescribed in the convention. So Russia is working on a claim along this Lomonosov Ridge, which is one of these features that might allow an extension, out toward the North Pole. But I should add here that, in fact, the Lomonosov Ridge is one of these ridges which spans a whole ocean basin. A submarine ridge, but it spans the whole basin -- so it is connected on the Russian end, but it is also connected at the Greenland/Canada end. So I have absolutely no doubt at all that Canada and Greenland [administered by Denmark] -- that Denmark and Canada -- are working very hard collecting the same sort of data, but they are coming from the other direction.

RFE/RL: So it's the same ridge they are competing for. Under the rules of the convention, does Canada have to file its own claim by 2013?

Parson: 2013, yes. Actually, Russia made its claim in 2001, so the clock stopped for them. Their building date is now to make a resubmission, because the claim, as I said before, didn't quite have the strength to carry it with the commission that examined it.

RFE/RL: And that target date is tied to the ratification of the Law on the Sea?

Parson: It is for Canada. Canada ratified it in 2003, so they have 10 years. It's in the convention -- 10 years. They are actually quite late in ratifying. All other coastal states that ratified before 1999 have their clocks reset from 1999 because that was the date the UN [Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea] and the commission that examines these cases -- they issued a set of guidelines, like a cookbook of how you go about the process. They've always had the convention -- they've had the convention since 1982, but it wasn't until 1999 that the true mechanics of how you go about it -- with all this application of the geophysical and geological data and so on. It was only then that people had really good guidelines.

RFE/RL: The United States has never ratified the Law of the Sea, which would seem to affect its ability to make future sovereignty claims in the Arctic or elsewhere. Do you see the United States joining the convention any time soon?

Parson: I've no doubt at all that the U.S. will ratify in a small number of years. The indications are that its getting closer and closer to the time that they feel comfortable about doing it. So I think they will join the party relatively soon.

The U.S. has been an observer to the convention all the time it has been running. I think it already has done quite a bit of work, so it's going to hit the ground running when it actually gets going. So, I think it's going to play catch-up fairly fast.

RFE/RL: There are apparently only five minisubmarines in the world capable of reaching the floor of the Arctic Ocean. Russia has two of them, and the others are in the United States, France, and Japan. Would states interested in making a claim to the Arctic need to physically dive to the bottom to gather the needed information?

Parson: The criteria by which these claims are made under international law do not necessarily require a sub to go down to take a sample of the sea floor. Samples, if they are needed, can be extracted using a ship and a bucket with teeth on the end of it, which you would dangle off the end of a ship and drag stuff off the bottom. So the Russian sub exercise is a fantastic scientific achievement, but it's certainly not necessary for a coastal state to build a claim.

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