Instead of joining the race to commercially exploit this pristine region, New Delhi must use its position in the regional council to push for a global mechanism to prevent an unseemly gold rush

On May 15, 2013, India became an Observer at the Arctic Council, which coordinates policy on the Arctic. (The Arctic Council has eight states as members, the five coastal states, Canada, Russia, the U.S., Norway and Denmark (through Greenland), and Sweden, Iceland and Finland.) Other countries that joined India as Observers were China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands are already Observers.

Criteria

In becoming an Observer, India had to agree to the following criteria set by the Council:

(i) recognise the sovereign rights of Arctic states;

(ii) recognise that the Law of the Sea and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, constitute the legal basis and the legal framework within which the Arctic will be managed;

(iii) respect indigenous peoples, local cultures and traditions; and

(iv) be able to contribute to the work of the Arctic Council.

Template transfer?

In accepting to abide by these criteria, India has recognised the territorial jurisdiction and sovereign rights of the Arctic littoral states and hence their pre-eminent and even pre-emptive role over the Arctic zone. The acceptance of the Law of the Sea as the governing instrument for the Arctic also implies that the extension of jurisdiction over the continental shelf as well as over maritime passage and the resources of the ocean space will lie with the littoral states. The Arctic has virtually become the inland water space of the five coastal states — Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States. India has, therefore, no more room to argue that the region be treated in the same manner as the Antarctica. In the Antarctica Treaty of 1959, territorial claims have been kept in abeyance in favour of a global commons approach, respecting the pristine nature of the ice covered continent. The trends we see in the Arctic region may well come to pass in the Antarctic as well. The claimant states could reasonably argue that just as the Arctic space is being managed by the sovereign members of the Arctic Council, with well-defined norms and through cooperation among both the littoral and user states, why could this not serve as a template for Antarctica? Like the Arctic, the Antarctic, too, is a treasure house of resources. These are also being unlocked by the steady melting of the continent’s ice cover. It may only be a question of time before the northern Gold Rush is followed by its rampant Southern version.

India has succumbed to the temptation of sharing in the emerging opportunities for resource extraction as the Arctic continues to melt because of global warming, Yes, as the government argues, becoming an Observer would enable India to take part in scientific research into the changing Arctic environment, including its serious climate change effects. These effects will be global, whether in sea level rise, the acidification of the worlds’ oceans and change in ocean currents and weather patterns. India’s association with the Arctic Council puts it in a better position to understand these changes and be a part of efforts to minimise the adverse consequences of the Arctic being opened up to intensified human activity. However, both the members of the Arctic Council and the Observers, including India, have avoided confronting the obvious: the opportunities that they seek to exploit and profit from are the very activities which will exacerbate the climate change impact of a warming Arctic. The “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” approach that all these stakeholders are guilty of merely disguises the fact that the lure of profit has already triumphed over the fear of ecological disaster. China has lost no time in positioning itself through a number of asset acquisitions in several Arctic states, in particular, Russia and Canada.

Practical

What could be done to restrain this headlong rush into a potential ecological catastrophe of global dimensions?

Oceanographer and Arctic expert Rick Steiner has made a practical and reasonable suggestion. This is for the U.N. to set up its own Arctic body. It may be on the lines of the Indian Ocean Commission, which may provide the international community the capacity to monitor what is happening in the region, draw up strict norms for activities, taking into account the “global commons” character of the Arctic, and put in place a credible and effective compliance mechanism. India could certainly push for such a global regime without violating its role of Observer at the Arctic Council.

It may also be worthwhile for India and other developing states to put the Arctic on the agenda of the ongoing multilateral negotiations on Climate Change under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. A separate resolution or decision of the Conference of Parties to the Convention could draw attention to the Arctic as a global commons, its impact on global climate and the need to ensure that the activities undertaken there do not harm the well-being of the vast majority of people around the world.

I have said earlier and reiterate: it is hypocritical of the developed, industrialised countries, in particular, the rich Arctic states, to preach low carbon development strategies to poor, developing countries, while they themselves, rush headlong into ensuring the perpetuation of their own carbon and fossil fuel intensive patterns of production and consumption. This hypocrisy lies at the heart of the relentless spoilage and ravaging of one of the last pristine frontiers of our endangered planet. If we keep silent and look away because of the prospect of sharing in this unseemly Gold Rush, India’s credentials as a responsible member of the international community and as a champion of the principle of equitable burden-sharing and inter-generational equity, would become deeply suspect.

(Shyam Saran, a former Foreign Secretary, is currently Chairman, National Security Advisory Board.)

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