We store cookies on your device to make sure we give you the best experience on this website. I'm fine with this - Turn cookies off
Switch to an accessible version of this website which is easier to read. (requires cookies)

Diana lauches booklet 'The Spitsbergen Treaty: Multilateral Governance in the Arctic'

30 August 2011: Diana has today in Helsinki lauched the booklet 'The Spitsbergen Treaty: Multilateral Goernance in the Arctic'. A copy of Diana's summary for the booklet can be found below. Alternatively, the booklet can be downloaded here.

The Spitsbergen Treaty

Edited by Diana Wallis MEP and Stewart Arnold


Since I was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999 I have been involved in Arctic issues. As part of my involvement in these matters I made my first visit to Svalbard in April 2001 from which time I have been fascinated by the set of rules which determine the governance of this Arctic archipelago: the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920.

As a lawyer the Treaty aroused my curiosity; I wanted to know how this rather elderly Treaty, signed in Paris just over 90 years ago, seemingly contained very modern concepts such as environmental protection, non-discriminatory treatment of signatory state nationals and non-military use. For a treaty that was first mooted at the very beginning of the last century (before the outbreak of the First World War) it seemed quite unique in the way it was initially suggested and finally formulated with a structure of shared or rotating international governance, aimed at both environmental protection and equitable exploitation. The final Spitsbergen Treaty of 9th February 1920, granted "absolute sovereignty" to Norway over the Svalbard archipelago, with freedom to regulate the area in accordance with and for the benefit of all the state parties to the Treaty.

It was clear to me on my various visits that the Norwegians have been admirable custodians of the island on behalf of the state parties to the Treaty - no-one could dispute that they have done an excellent job, almost certainly going beyond what was originally foreseen. The growth of the international research community there is also much to be applauded.

Despite this there remain tantalising questions, not least that, if this has worked so well for the governance of Svalbard under international agreement, might it not then be a model that should be extended further into the fragile Arctic, at least to the 200 mile continental shelf zone? However, it is then that tensions begin to surface. Norway argues that its mainland continental shelf claim encompasses that of the Svalbard archipelago and on this basis it has resources rights over areas around the archipelago as well as jurisdictional competence. This is not the way other nation states in the region, nor indeed all state parties to the Treaty, see it. This makes a huge difference to the future of fisheries and any possible oil and gas development within the zone.

So far such nascent tensions have been dealt with by relatively polite diplomacy and legal process between the state parties to the Treaty of the Spitsbergen Treaty but in effect there is a stalemate which could and, indeed should, perhaps be used as an opportunity.

I have long wanted to spend some time researching the provisions and possibilities of the Treaty and had indeed suggested that this would be worthy work to be carried out by legal researchers during the International Polar Year. However, it was seen as being outside of the realms of pure science. The current notes of discordance over the provisions of the Treaty could provide all Arctic nations and institutions with an opportunity for reflection, perhaps in the context of an amendment to the Treaty by Protocol, this again could provide an occasion for a valid EU contribution and involvement, which has otherwise proved so illusive in relation to the Arctic Council.

I have therefore been really grateful to have put together a small research project which I hope will stimulate thought and debate. This is not intended as a criticism of the Norwegian position but rather a search for more modern international structures and solutions based on what we might learn from an old but nonetheless innovative Treaty.

Our two principal researchers have brought different skills and expertise to this project:

Lotta Numminen looks at the history and evolution of the Treaty. in this sense it is important to see what drove the original framing of the Treaty. Obviously the surrounding circumstances in which we look at it today are quite different, but it may provide either inspiration or lessons.

Meanwhile Nkeiru Scotcher looks at the international law implications. This is important given the current low level frictions and legal arguments that presently exist over the interpretation of the Treaty, yet these very arguments could give us an opportunity to look at a new formulation appropriate to the realities of the current international context which confronts the Arctic.

Finally Professor Alison Bailes makes some concluding remarks and poses some interesting questions about the Spitsbergen Treaty. For example she asks if the future Arctic must remain a space of divided sovereignty, entirely or mostly available for economic and military activity, what political structures and legal regime(s) would best guarantee peace and good order while protecting the global commons? Or if some or all of the Arctic could be treated as a terra nullius, how would all the demands of good modern security management be met in and around such a space?

Diana Wallis MEP