Both Canada and Russia have passed legislation restricting transit rights to Arctic routes, U.S. participation in UNCLOS discussions will be key to resolving this standof
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Both Canada and the Russian Federation have enacted regulations that the United States believes amount to unwarranted restrictions on the right of transit passage. Canada, for example, imposed a mandatory ship reporting and vessel traffic service system (NORDREG) that governs transit through the Northwest Passage.29 NORDREG covers Canada’s EEZ and the several Northwest Passage routes in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.30 Canada specifically cites UNCLOS Article 234 to justify NORDREG, asserting that the reporting requirements are to prevent and reduce marine pollution from vessels in the delicate Arctic waters.31 Similarly, the Russian Federation has historically limited transit passage in the Northern Sea Route,32 using UNCLOS Article 234 to justify the limitations,33 and has recently implemented more extensive unilateral regulations to ensure shipping safety and environmental protection.34 With receding amounts of ice for significant portions of the year, whether the Northwest Passage or the Northern Sea Route meets Article 234’s climatic requirements for ice- covered areas is debatable.35
Under UNCLOS, coastal states seeking to prescribe sea-lanes and traffic separation schemes in straits used for international navigation must receive approval by a “competent international organization” prior to adoption.36 The International Maritime Organization (IMO) fills this role. The United States is working with other Arctic nations through the IMO to create a mandatory “Polar Code” that will cover all matters relevant to ships operating in both Arctic waters and the waters surrounding Antarctica.37 The IMO recently announced that the Polar Code will be operational as early as 2015 and will be implemented by 2016.38 The extent to which the Polar Code reconciles Russian and Canadian interests in regulating the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage with freedom of navigation interests will be critical.
Tension between Russia and other Arctic nations will remain high as they continue to compete for Arctic territory. Maintaining UNCLOS as a viable legal framework for settling Arctic territorial claims should help avert potential confrontations between Russia and other UNCLOS members.