Rights and responsibilities in the Arctic

While Antarctica is a land area and governed by a designated treaty, the Arctic Ocean is an ocean surrounded by national states. Although parts of the Arctic Ocean are covered by ice, the Law of the Sea applies in full in this area as in the other oceans of the earth. 

The international legal framework for all activities in the Arctic Ocean are formulated in UNCLOS, which clarifies issues relating to jurisdiction and the rights and obligations in the area. Pursuant to the Law of the Sea, coastal states of the Arctic Ocean have special obligations and rights in the area, on a par with coastal states adjacent to other waters.

UNCLOS provides comprehensive rules for exploiting resources on the continental shelf and in the 200 mile zones, shipping, environmental protection and research, and is supplemented in part by general environmental conventions and international instruments governing shipping and fisheries. Key instruments are the UN Convention on fishing on the high seas, which implements the provisions of UNCLOS relating to the conservation and management of migratory and highly migratory fish stocks, and conventions adopted by the International Maritime Organization, including the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Convention).

Melting ice and the expectation of increased activity in the Arctic Ocean necessitates cooperation on implementation of existing instruments and the development of supplementary rules in different areas. On the initiative of the Arctic Council, for example, a new agreement has been negotiated between the Council's eight members on search and rescue in the Arctic, which was signed in Nuuk in May 2011. For Norway, the agreement applies to the area north of the Arctic Circle and up to the North Pole, bounded to the east by Russia and Denmark/Greenland to the west. Another example is IMO's work to develop binding rules for shipping in polar waters ("Polar Code"), in which Norway has been a driving force. The Polar Code is expected to be completed in 2014, and will come into force in 2015 or 2016. Norway is also currently actively in negotiations for an oil spill response agreement between the Arctic countries, along the same lines as the search and rescue agreement. Agreement has yet to be reached on several outstanding issues, but the agreement is scheduled to be ready for signature at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in May 2013 in Stockholm.