It depends on what the definition of ‘in’ is

Quarterly Report | Since 1920 the Svalbard Treaty has provided the guidelines for the activity in the archipelago. As the Arctic opens up to new opportunities, signatories are having a closer look at the fine print

The treaty’s legacy in Barentsburg. But is the writing now on the wall (Photo: self)

Aron Løsnes

Svalbard has long been a place for all kinds of people. Explorers on their expeditions in the North found it a vital stopover. Hunters and trappers and miners have sought to exploit its natural bounty. Most recently, scientists have found it provides them with an ideal outpost for conducting their research.

Much of this activity took place beyond the jurisdiction of a national government. But, as interest on the archipelago increased during the early 20th century it became clear that there was a need for a set of rules. This was the basis for creating the Svalbard Treaty in 1920 at a peace conference in Paris during the aftermath of the First World War.

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With the stroke of a pen, Svalbard formally came under Oslo’s control. According to the treaty, the archipelago is part of the kingdom of Norway. In return, though, treaty signatories attached a number of conditions. Citizens and corporations from all the signatory countries, for example, maintain equal rights to fish, hunt and establish industries, and to carry out maritime and mining activities, on the islands.

The treaty has provided a stable framework for administration of Svalbard, for nearly a century. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union maintained (and Russia still does) the town of Barentsburg, where mining operations are carried out.

Currently only Norway and Russia have economic activity in Svalbard, but the prospect of increased activity in the Arctic in general, as well as political tensions elsewhere, are testing its limits.

One key question is whether the treaty covers Svalbard’s waters. Moscow say yes. If this is the case, Oslo would need to confirm with all signatories if it planned to conduct oil drilling. The Norwegians say the treaty applies only to the land, and that the continental shelf is under Oslo’s exclusive jurisdiction.

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Another issue is whether Oslo can act as border guard for the territory. Moscow protested Oslo’s decision, in April, to impose new border regulations in the wake of a surprise visit by Dimitry Rogozin, the head of the Kremlin’s commission for Arctic issues.

Mr Rogozin was in Svalbard to visit Barentsburg before travelling on to the North Pole, where he visited Russian scientists. The West, though, believes Mr Rogozin to have been deeply involved with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and is thus subject to personal sanctions that prevent him from travelling in Europe. Moscow argues that its status a treaty signatory means Oslo cannot apply this ban to Svalbard. Attempting to do so, the Kremlin said, violated the spirit of the treaty.

Oslo, for its part, argues that its immigration regulations apply in Svalbard, since it is part of Norway.

More serious than diplomatic shenanigans, however, are the military aspects of the treaty, which declares Svalbard a demilitarised zone. Even though the islands are part of the Norwegian kingdom, the treaty forbids Norway (or anyone else) from establishing any military facilities or in the area surrounding Svalbard. The only military-like activity is coast-guard patrolling.

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The heavens above Norway are another matter: in recent years, it has been questioned whether a satellite receiving station in Svalbard violates terms of the treaty stating it may not be used for “war-like purposes”. Critics note that data received from spy satellites was probably used in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The argument, writes Bård Wormdal, in his 2012 book The Satellite War, is that “if satellites that are linked to Svalbard are used by the Norwegian forces in Afghanistan, it is clear breach of the Svalbard treaty. In this connection, Norway is at war, and Svalbard is in that case used for warlike purposes. No doubt about that at all.”

That, of course, depends on what the meaning of “doubt” is.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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The Rasmussen’s Quarterly Reports provide an in-depth look at an issue or event relating to the Arctic, or a survey about a location in the region. 

Other articles in this report about Svalbard include:
More than just a treaty
The gene bank of last resort
The sheriff of Svalbard

Breaking through

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