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Arctic neighbours draw up battle lines
Description: The Arctic is one of the world's most remote, pristine and for most people, inhospitable parts of the world. But in recent years, there has been intense interest in the region from the countries that border it.
Date: 11 August 2007
Author: Lee Carter
Source: BBC News

No-one knows for certain, but it is strongly suspected that the seabed below the Arctic Ocean contains vast deposits of oil, minerals and natural gas.

Last week crews aboard Russian submarines, explored and mapped out part of the Lomonosov Ridge which Moscow says extends from Russia's continental shelf.

For good measure one crew took a diversion below the North Pole and in a gesture that made headlines across the world, dropped a Russian flag on the ocean floor.

The Canadian government was not amused by the Russian action, prompting the country's Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mackay to comment.

"You can't go around the world these days dropping flags somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th Century. They're fooling themselves." Mr Mackay said, adding that there was "no question" that the waters belonged to Canada.

The tit-for-tat also gave Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent three day visit to the Arctic, a new sense of urgency.

"Canada has taken its sovereignty too lightly for too long. This government has put a big emphasis on reinforcing and strengthening our sovereignty in the Arctic," Mr Harper declared as he toured the region.

The rhetoric may be bullish, but Canada's claims to Arctic sovereignty are by no means clear cut.

UN control

Jurisdiction over the seabed of the Arctic Ocean is regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by Russia, Canada and Denmark. It is widely expected that the United States will ratify within the next year.

The future status of the region's ocean floor will be determined on the basis of scientific evidence that demonstrates whether or not the seabed is an extension of a claiming country's continental shelf.

Michael Byers is a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia. He says that the Russian submarine mission was a legitimate research project to collect seismic data to bolster their claim to an area off the Lomonosov Ridge.

"The Russians are fully committed, at a political and scientific level, to filing a comprehensive scientific claim, with the United Nations. They're perfectly entitled to do so, in fact I think we should celebrate that they're working within the framework of international law," he said.

Professor Byers acknowledges that the Russian crew's diversionary flag-planting incident was little more than a publicity stunt, but says that Canadian politicians are also guilty of posturing for domestic consumption.

"Politicians in Russia or Canada can never lose domestically by standing up for sovereignty in the Arctic. But underlying all of the rhetoric is the very important fact that all of the Arctic countries are working within a legal framework."

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