Polar Regions

Abstract

This Research Guide is intended as a starting point for legal research on the Polar Regions. It covers a wide variety of topics relating to the Arctic, the Antarctic, Spitsbergen and Greenland. These include: regional and international governance issues, peace and security, dispute settlement, climate change, environmental protection, territorial claims and border disputes, law of the sea, exploration, exploitation of oil, gas and minerals, maritime navigation, and human rights issues, such as autonomy and self-determination, the rights of indigenous peoples to land and natural resources, their cultural rights and cultural heritage. As climate change has serious impact on the Polar Regions, international law has an important role to play, now and in the future.

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The Arctic is a polar region located at the northernmost part of the Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The Arctic nations are all members of the Arctic Council, as are organizations representing six indigenous populations. The Council operates on consensus basis, mostly dealing with environmental treaties and not addressing boundary or resource disputes. Though Arctic policy priorities differ, every Arctic nation is concerned about sovereignty/security, resource development, shipping routes, and environmental protection (climate change). Much work remains on regulatory agreements regarding shipping, tourism, and resource development in Arctic waters. Scientific research in the Arctic has long been a collaborative international effort.

Unlike Antarctica, a continent surrounded by the Southern Ocean, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents. For this reason, it is governed in large part by the law of the sea, a body of unwritten but nevertheless binding rules of customary international law which were codified into the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Territorial disputes are absent in the Arctic, but, there are several existing or potential disputes over maritime boundaries and possible international straits that will likely become more important due to climate change, rising prices for natural resources, and new security concerns. As the Arctic is in crisis, international law has an important role to play, now and in the future.

Antarctica is Earth's fifth-largest and southernmost continent. It is located in the Antarctic region of the southern hemisphere, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice. It has no human population of its own, except for some permanent manned scientific research stations. Seven sovereign states have claimed sectors of land in Antarctica, but none of these claims have been recognized by other countries. In 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington to establish Antarctica as a region of peace and cooperation, and to deal with issues relating to claims of sovereignty. Its primary purpose is to ensure “in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. The Treaty is at the core of a number of related agreements which, together with the measures taken under the Antarctic Treaty and related agreements are often called the Antarctic Treaty system.

This Research Guide is intended as a starting point for legal research on the Polar Regions. It provides the basic materials available in the Peace Palace Library, both in print and electronic format. Handbooks, leading articles, bibliographies, periodicals, serial publications and documents of interest are presented in the Selective Bibliography section. Links to the PPL Catalogue are inserted. The Library's subject headings (keywords) Polar Regions, Arctic, Antarctica and Antarctic Treaty (Washington, D.C., 1 December 1959) are instrumental for searching through the Catalogue. Special attention is given to our subscriptions on databases, e-journals, e-books and other electronic resources. Finally, this Research Guide features links to relevant websites and other online resources of particular interest.

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Sources of international law

Treaties

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington on 1 December 1959 by the twelve countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. It entered into force in 1961 and has since been acceded to by many other nations. The total number of Parties to the Treaty is now 54.

Related Agreements

Although CCAS and CCAMLR are independent agreements, they contain provisions committing their Parties to essential parts of the Antarctic Treaty such as Article IV which deals with the legal status of territorial claims. The Environment Protocol is open to accession by Antarctic Treaty Parties only.

UN Declarations and Resolutions

The Official Document System (ODS) is an online database of UN documents that was first launched in 1993 and updated in 2016. ODS has full-text, born-digital UN documents published from 1993 onward, including documents of the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and their subsidiaries, as well as administrative issuances and other documents. You can search for UN documents by keywords, such as Arctic, Antarctic, Polar regions, then narrow your search.

Reference works

Selected books and articles

Periodicals, serial publications

Bibliographies