As a non-native speaker of English, I have always been intrigued by the phrase "polar opposites." Fact is, nothing so resembles the North Pole as the South Pole. Based on this polar symmetry, there exists the opportunity and an increasingly urgent need to emulate Antarctica and establish an Arctic nuclear-free zone. Such a step would have significant environmental, conservation, conflict avoidance, and scientific cooperation benefits.

The urgency of the need arises from the existing unsatisfactory legal situation on territoriality, military practices, the faster-than-expected rate of shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap caused by global warming that is opening up the prospect of surface-navigating the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the potential for military clashes. Recently there has been a flurry of declarations (for example by Canada), activities (for example by Russia) and counter-responses by others that lie around the Arctic perimeter or that use its waterways for their navies.

Many proposals have been advanced in the past for the creation of nuclear weapons-free zones in central Europe, the Baltics, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. The only success, on paper, in the northern hemisphere has come for Central Asia but obstacles remain in the way of its operationalisation. By contrast, almost the entire southern hemisphere is already covered by such zones: Latin America (1967), the South Pacific (1985), South-East Asia (1996), Africa (1997), and, of course, Antarctica (1959).

These are all based on multilaterally negotiated treaties among the countries of the zone and protocols whereby the nuclear powers accept their responsibilities vis-À-vis the regional zones. The zones were crafted to complete a significant gap in the NPT whose non-nuclear members were legally permitted to host and base on their soil nuclear weapons owned and operated by foreign allies. All nuclear-free zones prohibit this and so deepen and complement the non-proliferation regime.

Conflicting claims

The Antarctic Treaty goes much farther in freezing in perpetuity conflicting territorial claims, prohibiting any militarisation and nuclear activity, protecting the continent's fragile ecosystem, guaranteeing scientific cooperation, and instituting a complex system of shared regime management that has actually worked well.

The motivation behind setting up all such zones is disengagement before the fact: put in place legal regimes and oversight mechanisms that prevent disputes and problems from arising in the first place.

In Antarctica, many countries have long-standing claims on pieces of its territory, some of which overlap. Many others who could make claims based on various legal grounds, have not actually done so, but have not renounced their claims. Many more reject the idea of Antarctic colonisation, arguing that its uninhabited status and critical role in the global ecosystem make it a common heritage of mankind. Several states take part in scientific activities without asserting or rejecting territorial claims.

The Antarctic Treaty "froze" the territorial status. Claimant and would-be claimant states did not renounce their rights. They agreed not to engage in military activities, although the military forces could take part in exploratory and research activities. They agreed to protect the flora and fauna and to make common decisions with respect to the unknown but potentially vast treasure trove of minerals, with conservation trumping exploitation unless we could be certain of no damage being caused.

On August 24, Canada's Pugwash - the Nobel Peace prize-winning organisation with a proud record of active engagement in nuclear disarmament - called on governments to emulate Antarctica and establish an Arctic nuclear-free zone (ANFZ).

The legal regime on the ownership of Arctic seabed resources and transit rights is ambiguous and incomplete. Scientists have proven to be overly conservative in estimating the rapidity with which the ice cap is shrinking with accelerating global warming. This will enable commercial ship navigation through Arctic waters and permit exploitation of seabed resources. Countries with legal claims and economic resources, and the material capacity to exploit and military capacity to defend them, may not be able to resist the temptation to create new facts on the ground now in order to protect their future interests.

An Arctic nuclear-free zone will be an exemplary means of foreclosing competitive militarisation - and possibly even competitive nuclearisation - without treading on the existing status of claims over territory, resources and transit rights. It could reverse the disquieting drift to weaponised nuclearisation that seems to be occurring in parallel with global warming. It would reflect, adapt and add to the precedents of all other nuclear-free zones, and also the 1971 Seabed Treaty that forbids the stationing of nuclear weapons and support facilities on the seabed outside territorial waters.

Some 113 countries are already party to nuclear-free zones around the world. Who will take up the slack in the Arctic to educate all relevant countries about the nature of such a zone, convince them of the merits and universal benefits, and persuade them to negotiate a multilateral treaty to establish it?

Republished in the Japan Times

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