The Danish government recently published the Danish Foreign and Security Policy Strategy 2017-2018, which includes an initiative to “use the 10th anniversary of the Ilulissat Declaration to draw attention to the political obligations and expand the practical collaboration for shared interests”. The Ilulissat Declaration was a Danish (and Greenlandic) initiative and in consequence, it is only natural that it is the Danes who are reminding the other signatories of the common goals agreed upon.  

The Danes are right to take credit for the initiative as the declaration is a tangible demonstration proving a shared willingness to cooperation and dialogue concerning the Arctic between the Arctic nations. However, the question remains; does the Ilulissat Declaration have merit in today’s world or is it a remnant of the past? 

The official commitment to the region

The Ilulissat Declaration was adopted by the five Arctic nations with borders on the Arctic Ocean (Denmark, Norway, Canada, the Russian Federation and the United States) in 2008. By signing the declaration, the nations committed themselves to peaceful cooperation and dialogue regarding the development in the Arctic Ocean, and to settle possible overlapping territorial claims or other discrepancies within the framework of international law and the Law of the Sea.

 The declaration recognizes that the Arctic Ocean is a unique ecosystem threatened by climate change and the signatories vowed to strengthen existing measures and to develop new measures of protection. Additionally, the nations agreed to enhance cooperation within the scientific field(s) concerning the Arctic and to improve search and rescue capabilities and capacity around the Arctic Ocean.  

Through an analysis of the signatories’ individual official Arctic strategies (Denmark (2011), Norway (2017), Canada (2017), the United States (2013) and Russia (2013) (non-official English translation)), it is possible to analyze the various official positions on the aims of the declaration.


All strategies but Russia’s refer to international law as being the predominant legal framework for cooperation within the Arctic and that future legal structures concerning the Arctic should be with respect for international law. Yet, Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept from 2016 states that Russia “believes that the existing international legal framework is sufficient to successfully settle any regional issues through negotiation;” and thus unambiguously affirms the Russian commitment to international law.

The claim to the North Pole is intertwined with the continental shelf territorial dispute as the underwater ground is the key to control over the territory. So far, the dispute has been of low intensity where the countries submit their claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental shelf (CLCS); however, symbolic gestures as the Russian flag planting on the North Pole seabed in 2007 or the official Danish claim in 2014 suggest that the dispute is one of importance. Additionally, Denmark and Canada have an ongoing (and somewhat friendly) dispute over the small Hans Island in the Nares Strait; both parties, nevertheless, are committed to deal with the issue in accordance to international law.

The nations recognize that climate change is affecting the Arctic region, creating both new opportunities and challenges. The region is getting more accessible and shipping and trade is in consequence thriving. Other forms of economic development are likewise high on the agenda of the nations, however, all agree that development must be beneficial for both the indigenous people living in the region and the environment as a whole; sustainability is the key word.

All emphasize that regional cooperation within science and technology, and search and rescue is desirable and mutually beneficial; and as members of the Arctic Council, the states signed the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation in 2017 and the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement in 2011.

New threats

The Danish, US and Russian Arctic strategies are from before 2014 and thus before the West-Russia relations plummeted after the Russian annexation of Crimea and involvement in Eastern Ukraine. Norway’s strategy from 2017 acknowledges Russia’s violation of international law regarding Ukraine, but emphasizes that the country is committed to cooperation with Russia in the Arctic region. This indicates that the Western countries and Russia are able to continue Arctic cooperation despite of sanctions and a worsening in relations in other areas.

Another new factor is Russia’s increasing investment in the region, including a military build up. And even though that findings from RAND indicate, that “Russia’s current militarization of its Arctic region does not, in itself, suggest increased potential for conflict, with the exception of accidental escalation”, it is not something that the other Arctic states can ignore.

The US Department of Defense published in 2016 a report on how to protect US interests in the Arctic region, which recognizes that the new security situation combined with Russia’s increasing involvement in the Arctic region demand a US response. This and the apparent rent seeking behavior of the new Trump administration in the Arctic could mean future problems with regional interests overlapping backed up with military escalation. Further, the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement suggests that it is doubtful whether the US will commit to agreements that acknowledges climate change.

All in all

It seems that the coastal Arctic Five recognize that the sustainment of the Arctic as a low-tension region is in everyone’s best interest. Rising tensions between the West and post-Crimea Russia mean that the Western countries are carefully observing the Russian regional military build up and that Russian official rhetoric concerning the Arctic is received with scepticism.

If the current militarization of the Arctic region spearheaded by Russia intensifies in the coming years, the chances for military confrontations (intentional and unintentional) increases and it could prove disruptive to the current collaborative regional atmosphere.

Nonetheless, the territorial disputes show no indication towards a more heated disagreement as all states act in accordance with international law. As of now, no final decisions have been made to the claims submitted to the CLCS. And even though that these verdicts potentially could make the disputes take a turn for the worse, it is something that remains to be seen.

Sustainable development is agreed upon by all and even if the US does not officially recognize climate change, it is undeniable that the Arctic region is changing. The aims in cooperation within science and technology, and search and rescue capabilities have been confirmed through agreements initiated by the Arctic Council.

Overall, the Ilulissat Declaration does indeed have merit today and the anniversary should be celebrated by all signatories in the coming year, 2018.

Photo: Ilulissat city. Photo by Marlene Kempel Lehrmann

Disclaimer: The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association Denmark.


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