Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic
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Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic

Edited by Leif Christian Jensen and Geir Hønneland

The Arctic has again become one of the leading issues on the international foreign policy agenda, in a manner unseen since the Cold War. Drawing on the perspectives of geo-politics and international law, this Handbook offers fresh insights and perspectives on the most pressing issues, grouped under the headings of political ascendancy, climate and environmental issues, resources and energy, and the response and policies of affected countries.
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Chapter 12: Arctic sovereignty and its legal significance for Canada

Donald R. Rothwell


Polar sovereignty was a relatively dormant issue in the second half of the twentieth century. In the Arctic, most territorial claims had been settled by World War II, and while the Cold War introduced military and security tensions into the Arctic, none of these directly related to contested territorial sovereignty (Grant 2010). Territorial sovereignty has been less contentious in the Arctic than in Antarctica, superficially because there has been less disputed territory. Following the period of intense discovery of Arctic lands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which included the ‘race for the Pole’, Arctic territorial disputes were settled in a relatively orderly fashion, including by reference to the Permanent Court of International Justice. At present, the only territorial dispute is that between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island, a very small island that straddles Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island (Stevenson 2007). More recently, however, Arctic outer continental shelf claims have become a source of tension, placing the spotlight on the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) as it reviews continental shelf claims from Arctic states. The status of certain Arctic waters also remains in dispute – including the Northwest Passage, where the United States questions Canadian sovereignty over those waters. Yet the dawn of the twenty-first century has seen a significant shift in the debate over Arctic sovereignty, due to several factors.

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