Canada must work harder to assert its authority over the Arctic waters if it wants to maintain a strong international reputation, professor of international law at UniversitÃ© de MontrÃ©al, Suzanne Lalonde said.
Canada’s rule over the Artic has become difficult as melting icecaps have enlarged the Northwest Passage, an area over which Canada claims sovereignty.
In order to govern these waters Canada needs a presence and it needs to patrol the waters8212; tasks that require money and other resources, Lalonde said while speaking at Marionopolis College last week.
Without proper patrol, anybody will be able to use the waters. “The risk of unauthorized transit will question Canada’s ability to control and govern the water,” the professor said, adding that this loss of environmental and shipping control would demonstrate a weakness on the part of the nation.
While Canada’s presence in the Arctic is noticeable, its authority in the area is minimal, Lalonde said. A UN article allows Canada to enforce non-discriminative laws pertaining to pollution in the area. But the law applies only to commercial ships, and has no jurisdiction over submarines or airspace.
Currently, Lalonde said, no other state is calling to question Canada’s right to govern these waters. There is, however, debate as to how these waters should be used.
The United States, for example, has said the waters should be used as an international strait, a situation that would force Canada to relinquish most of its control.
Already, statistics suggest most transits through the Northwest Passage are not cleared by Canada first. The increasing size of the passages has made it easier for vessels to travel through the otherwise ice-infested waters. The U.S. and European Union consider parts of the increased passages to be international territory.
Canada, however, has a different opinion; it claims these are Canadian waters, and that Canadian authorities should be consulted before the area is used as a transit route.
Confusion as to which nation can claim control stems from the unclear criteria of the continental shelf – the submerged border of a continent that slopes gradually and extends to the bottom of the ocean. A country can claim up to 200 nautical miles of water extending from the shelf, after which point it becomes international waters. But consistent extensions of the shelf and constant natural changes have made sticking to this limit somewhat difficult.
Though there are conflicting opinions regarding the Arctic waters, Lalonde insists there is no animosity and competition as a result. “The U.S. is not a principal adversary,” she said. “They have not endorsed Canada, but have not challenged them either.”
Lalonde said she believes a claim that natives in Canada historically used these waters would reinforce its claims to sovereignty.