Heather Conley: The risks are high in such a harsh environment

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The Independent Online

Despite Russia planting a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed in 2007 or countries making very strong statements about sovereignty over their Arctic territory, I think there's a very low probability of nation's rival claims leading to conflict. These countries are expressing their Arctic identities. Yet what the WikiLeaks cables do provide is some insight into why this is a region of growing importance.

As the polar ice cap recedes, the Arctic will open to more commercial shipping, fisheries, and oil and gas exploration. It means that there has to be more international co-operation because of the fragility of the Arctic environment, and these states will also have to look to other issues, including their border security, something they have never had to do before. But we shouldn't be alarmed by it. For these Arctic coastal states have not been horsetrading.

The states – except for the US – are all working within the framework of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). The convention allows member states to submit claims, backed by scientific data, which extend their 200-mile exclusive economic zone. In spite of strong rhetoric and breast-beating, Russia, Canada and others are all following Unclos.

There is another issue for the US: since it has not ratified Unclos, it cannot submit any claims. This has created a global military and economic disadvantage for the US. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought ratification. One of the main reasons it has not been ratified by the Senate lies in the first two words: the United Nations. There are some who are concerned about the loss of American sovereignty to multilateral organisations.

We're going to see a real spike in human activity, whether it's economic exploration or eco-tourism. We don't have sufficient capabilities to handle a major incident, whether it's search and rescue or whether it's responding to an environmental disaster.

I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't explore for oil and gas resources but the risks are very high. The people most directly affected by our policies are the four million people, including indigenous populations, who live within the Arctic Circle.

Heather Conley is an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank