Svalbard’s legal territoriality is starting to become more of a problem for the international community, especially for the countries who surround it in the Arctic. Svalbard itself is an archipelago far to the north of Norway, its caretaker country. Norway’s administration of Svalbard is very unique in that it is limited by a multilateral agreement called the Svalbard Treaty. The articles of this treaty ensure a low tax rate for its inhabitants, a visa-free entry model, and almost complete demilitarization. While these stipulations have provided peace in the past, conflict is becoming more likely with the onset of climate change, which is making the island more hospitable. This has resulted in newfound scrutiny over the legal status of the valuable undersea resources.
As World Policy contributor Morgane Fert-Malka understands it, the key issue of Svalbard’s dilemma is that “the treaty was drafted decades before the emergence of contemporary maritime law… in 1920 legal notions of continental shelves and 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) did not exist.” Norway’s interpretation of the situation is understandably self-serving and literal according to the decades-old treaty. For Oslo, the special benefits of the treaty only extend to that which is written in the treaty. This leads them to believe that the water surrounding Svalbard is not subject to the treaty. However, they do recognize Svalbard as sovereign Norwegian territory, as do most countries, and therefore believe the water falls into Norway’s EEZ.
Some of the treaty signatory countries disagree with this view. Russia has been cited by Polar Connection as believing that any choice on the ownership of the waters surrounding Svalbard should be done multilaterally with all those who signed. The EU also has a more pluralistic interpretation of the waters ownership, which Norway vehemently opposes.
This disputed understanding of Svalbard’s waters could be a flashpoint for a larger conflict if every signatory country was given sovereignty. As time passes, more countries will want their perceived fair share of Svalbard, but it does not necessarily need to devolve into conflict. So far, tensions over fishing rights between Norway and Russia have been eased due to a mutual interest in maintaining a bountiful supply. Even though the treaty’s language is archaic, it presents a great opportunity to set a strong precedent for cooperation by resolving these disputes amicably. These efforts will be hugely important for future attempts to establish other equal opportunities, stateless, and demilitarized areas.