A Rock and a Hard Place: Talks on Hans Island to Restart

Hans Island, with Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the background [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
This week’s meeting of Arctic officials in Ilulissat, Greenland resulted in many notable developments involving governance in the circumpolar north as well as regional diplomacy. These included the commencement of the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, which had been struck at the last Arctic Council Ministerial in Fairbanks in May 2017, a deal which it was hoped would improve scientific diplomacy in the Arctic.

The meeting also marked the tenth anniversary of the Ilulissat Declaration [pdf], which was a watershed agreement by the five littoral states, (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States), surrounding the Arctic Ocean. The region was reaffirmed as a zone of development and peace. However, at the end of the meetings, it was also announced that the governments of Canada, Denmark and Greenland would be resuming efforts to finally resolve a muted but stubborn territorial dispute in the Arctic, namely the legal status of Hans Island.

Also known as Tartupaluk in Greenlandic, (in Inuktitut, ᑕᕐᑐᐸᓗᒃ), Hans Island is a 1.3kmrock lying between Canada’s Ellesmere Island (Nunavut) and Greenland in the narrow Nares Strait, and claimed by both Canada and Denmark/Greenland as part of their sovereign territory.

The island is uninhabited, and uninhabitable, and by itself has little economic value, but the surrounding exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is of great interest to both parties in the areas offishing and other potential resource extraction. The disagreement has been relatively obscure and low-key compared to other more prominent current island disputes, including the ongoing South China Sea imbroglio and the Chagos Archipelago row between Mauritius and the United Kingdom in the Indian Ocean, but nonetheless has been a complicated legal affair.

Map of Hans Island and surrounding region [Image via Wikimedia Commons]
It is implausible that the Hans Island dispute would involve any sort of gunboat diplomacy, or even low-intensity actions along the lines of the ‘cod wars’ fishing disputes between Iceland and the UK in the 1950s-1970s, given the robust relationship between Canada and Denmark, (and both countries being NATO members). However, a solution to the longstanding dispute has so far proven illusive, and the issue may become more pressing as the Arctic opens up resource development and shipping. Although there are other examples of past and present boundary disputes in the Arctic, including aboundary debate between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea which was settled amicably [pdf] in 2010, a US-Canada disagreement over a section of the Beaufort Sea, and the differences over the status of the underwater Lomonosov Ridge region which is claimed by Canada, Denmark/Greenland and Russia, the Hans Island issueis distinct in that the dispute is over land, instead of a waterway.

The Hans Island question first came to the forefront when the maritime border between Canada and Greenland in the Arctic was being determined in the 1970s. A 1973 agreement [pdf] on the continental shelf clarified the maritime boundary in the region, but the placement of the island directly on the border left that issue unresolved. An upgraded bilateral maritime demarcation agreement, completed in November 2012, also omitted a Hans Island solution.

The isolation of the region indicated the dispute was not seen as a priority for either actor. Yet by the turn of the century, when Ottawa began to pursue policies designed to enhance Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, Hans Island began to assume a higher priority. This issue, for example, factored into Canada’s 2004 budget debates by the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, with Hans Island being folded into the debate, spearheaded by then-opposition leader Stockwell Day, over the need for improved spending on behalf of the Canadian armed forces.

Actions taken by Canada and Denmark to demonstrate their claims over Hans Island have been more akin to theatre as opposed to hard political pressure. This led some commentators to label the dispute a ‘whisky war’, as in 1984 a note advising that Hans Island was Danish territory was left on the rock, reportedly along with a bottle of schnapps. This was followed up by the placing of a bottle of Canadian Club whisky on the island by a Canadian expedition and the subsequent planting of Canadian and Danish flags. Although both Copenhagen and Ottawa pledged their support for a diplomatic solution, and have so far been content with an ‘agree-to-disagree’ status, arriving at a final agreement has remained difficult given the large amount of potential economic goods involved.

There have been two possible solutions to the dispute which have been put forward in recent years. The first would be the creation of a ‘condominium’ (or more formally, ‘coimperium’) arrangement, defined as two or more states ‘jointly exercising governmental authority’. In the case of Hans Island, the two parties would then work out the means of sharing resources.

Legal precedents exist for such an arrangement, with one of the most prominent being the joint Anglo-French administration of the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific until the state of Vanuatu gained independence in 1980. A much lesser known example would be Pheasant Island in Europe, which rotates between French and Spanish administration every six months as a result of a clause in the Treaty of the Pyrénées between the two countries in 1659. The condominium option for Hans Island was popularised by two academics, Michael Byers (Canada) and Michael Böss (Denmark), in the ‘Aarhus Declaration’ in 2015 which advocated joint administration of the island in cooperation with Greenlandic and Inuit communities.

port vila
Port Vila, Vanuatu [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The other option, which would have intriguing political ramifications, would be to split the island in half between Canada and Greenland, thus creating an unusual land border between Canada and the Danish Kingdom, and potentially the European Union, (although that is less clear, given that Greenland withdrew from the then-European Community in 1985). Presumably, this would also mean a 50/50 split of the EEZ as well as the resources within it. Although that suggestion has been periodically floated for years, the idea never gained serious traction.

The announcement at Ilulissat this week regarding Hans Island negotiations included the creation of a special working group to discuss both the island and associated differences over maritime borders in the nearby and Labrador and Lincoln Seas. According to a joint statement by the governments of Canada, Denmark and Greenland, the task force would explore various options to resolve the dispute and provide recommendations for a resolution, in the spirit of the previous 2008 Ilulissat agreement. The decision to restart Hans Island negotiations was praised by Greenland’s new foreign minister, Vivian Motzfeldt, who cited the talks as another reason why Arctic governments should strive to maintain good levels of cooperation.

Overhead shot of Hans Island taken by NASA Landsat 7 satellite [Picture by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons]
Although the talks are expected to be cordial, neither Copenhagen nor Ottawa can afford to be seen as too conciliatory given the political and economic stakes. Arctic sovereignty, and preparedness for the opening up of the Arctic Ocean, remain sensitive political subjects in Canada, especially with the opening up of the Northwest Passage (which itself has a disputed legal status), to shipping and other economic activities. The Danish government also wants to avoid any loss of political support in Nuuk which might be created by allowing Hans Island to fall under Canadian sovereignty, especially at a time when support for independence in Greenland remains strong. As with Copenhagen’s strong stance on the Lomonosov Ridge negotiations, Denmark wants to portray itself as dedicated to looking after Greenlandic interests in the wake of growing international interest, (including from China), in mining and other ventures in Greenland.

The successful resolution of the Hans Island disagreement could also affect the course of other boundary disputes such as in the Lomonosov region, and would further underscore the need for regional diplomacy on a variety of fronts as the Arctic continues to open up.

[Thanks to Mingming Shi for her assistance in the researching of this post.]