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Conflict Analysis

Arctic Sovereignty
Using the Hans Island Dispute as a Diplomatic
Michael Mitchell, OMM, CD
September 3, 2014

Executive Summary

The Canadian Arctic Archipelago consists of more than 36,000 islands. The only
island in this group over which sovereignty is currently contested is Hans Island,
which lies midway between Canada and Greenland (Denmark). Since the 1970s
Canada and Denmark have not been able to reach an accord as to how title to
this uninhabited rock should be decided.
As ice packs recede, the extent of the continental shelves of nations bordering
the Arctic is becoming more defined. This situation is prompting a reappraisal of
the delineation of national borders, and raising questions regarding how national
sovereignty over land, water, and airspace is to be determined.
The increasing navigability of Arctic waterways is prompting a marked rise in
global political and corporate interest in exploiting this transportation route, as
well as the oil, gas, and other resource wealth in the region. Some uncertainty
exists as to who can take advantage of these opportunities, and what regulations
come into play.
The Hans Island territorial dispute may provide a test case opportunity that can
be used to not only resolve this single issue, but also provide a model with which
some potential future claims may be settled.


Sovereignty is not given, it is taken. - Mustafa Kemal Atatrk

This paper introduces a proposed resolution to the ongoing dilemma of the
determination of sovereignty over Hans Island, a small, yet potentially significant
geographic feature located in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. A contextual
outline of the situation is followed by a conflict analysis, and intervention
proposals. It is this authors view that the cornerstone of a resolution to this
problem lies in a belief, brought forward by Mayer (2012), that a deeper
understanding of the identity issues, rather than negotiated agreements based
on identified interests (p. 175) defines the preferred course of action. Successful
outcomes resulting from this problem-solving approach might provide a model by
which comparable future territorial disputes could be addressed in a collaborative
and transparent manner (Folger et al., 2013).

Geographical and Historical Context

The Arctic Archipelago (see Figure 1) consists of more than 36,000
islands that lie to the North of mainland Canada in the Arctic Ocean between
North America and Greenland (see Figure 2), encompassing a landmass in
excess of 1.4 million square kilometers (Canadian Geographic, 2005). The only
currently disputed exception to Canadas sovereignty over these Arctic Islands is
Hans Island (Byers, 2014).
Hans Island (see Figure 3) is a 1.3 square kilometer, uninhabited rock
lying midway between Canadas Ellesmere Island and Greenland, an
autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. The island is situated in the
narrow Kennedy Channel in Nares Strait, midway between the Canadian and
Danish (Greenland) territories. Hans Island has never held a permanently
occupied settlement, and there is no current evidence that it contains any natural
resources of note (Huebert, 2005).

Figure 1(left): Islands of the Canadian

Arctic Archipelago (darker region at
top of map). Greenland is the large
landmass lying to the Northeast of
those islands. Source:


Figure 2: Map of Hans Island. Source:

Figure 3: The barren rock that is Hans

Island. Source:

Stevenson (2007) detailed how Canadas claim to sovereignty over this

area lies predominantly in the fact that this region was ceded to Canada by the
United Kingdom in 1880. That claim was further strengthened by continuous
occupation of the region, and determination by the inhabitants to continue to be
governed by the Government of Canada. The second (continuous occupation)
and third (will of the inhabitants) determinants are not easily defended in specific
relation to Hans Island (Dufresne, 2007). Denmarks claim centres on the
assertion that the island was discovered by a Greenland Inuit named Hans
Hendrik, that there are certain geographic linkages to Greenland, and that
Greenland Inuit (Inughuit) may have used the island in the past as a hunting
staging place (Stevenson, 2007). Since the 1990s, both countries have
attempted to strengthen their claims by periodically sending military units to visit
the island in furtherance of the principal that occupation of territory is integral to
the claim of title in accordance with United Nations doctrine (Byers, 2013).
The similarity of the claims to ownership taken by each country, as well as
the common self-perceptions regarding objective legal claim to title and national
identity associated with the island, infer a homogenous perception of reality,
which Fisher and Kelman (2011) refer to as a centrality of perceptions. This
observation will bear consideration when crafting an intervention strategy.
There has never been any armed dispute between the two countries, and
political interchange has usually been cordial (Stevenson, 2007). There is even
precedence for establishing official accords on the issue of Hans Island as
evidenced by the original bi-lateral survey treaty in 1973 (UNLT, 2002).

Positions, Issues, Values, Interests and Needs

Canada and Denmark are in what Galtung (1990) defined as a state of
negative peace. A series of small-scale military occupations, as well as


diplomatic and legal quibbling, has created disharmony between two otherwise
friendly nations (Huebert, 2005). However, by Colemans (2003) definition, the
otherwise stable and friendly relationship that exists between the two countries
characterizes this as a tractable, albeit protracted conflict.
A central issue in this conflict involves the disagreement between Canada
and Denmark (the Primary parties in this conflict) on which country has
sovereignty over Hans Island. In 1973, when both countries were drawing their
maritime boundaries, it was discovered that Hans Island fell almost exactly on
the demarcation line between both countries. Rather than delay the progress of
the survey, a demarcation line was drawn up to one end of the island and
continued from the opposite end, with the understanding that title to the island
would be determined at some future date (Byers, 2014; UNLT, 2002). Galtung
(1990) warned that the act of conflict avoidance is akin to orchestrated
confrontation (p. 293), a non-kinetic, but nonetheless tangible style of conflict.
Poole, and Stutman (2013) contended parties, that adopt an avoiding style, risk
fomenting apathy or isolation.
The presence of aboriginal peoples in the region, dating from a time
before recorded history, establishes the origins of a cultural identity element to
this issue (Dufresne, 2007). On a more contemporary note, the concept of
sovereignty plays a significant role in modern nationalistic perceptions of identity
on the part of both Primary parties, as explored by Kriesberg (2003).
The rhetoric related to assertions of sovereignty emanating from both
countries has been manifestly partisan. Following a visit to the island in 2005 by
Canadas foreign affairs minister, the head of the department of International
Public Law at Denmark's Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying, "We consider
Hans Island to be part of Danish territory and will therefore hand over a complaint
about the Canadian minister's unannounced visit" (BBC, 2005). Canadas
position with regard to the importance of the Arctic to Canada and its people is
just as pointedly reflected in policy documents, and even public opinion polls.
Canadas Northern Strategy: Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future (GoC, 2009),
the federal governments principal Arctic policy document, begins with the
assertion: Canada is a Northern nation. The North is a fundamental part of our
heritage and our national identity, and it is vital to our future (p. 3). A public
opinion poll of almost 3,000 Canadians showed that they considered the Arctic to
be a cornerstone of national identity and our foremost foreign policy priority
(EKOS, 2011). It may be unwise to ignore this human value for, as Kriesberg
(2003) asserted, to do so could impel a devolution from a tractable to an
intractable state. The basic, enduring characteristic of national identity raises this
component from a simple interest to a need in this case (Mayer, 2012).
Aside from the structural (legal, geographic) and cultural (nationalistic,
historic) issues, there is another, yet to be fully evaluated, economic interest at
stake. As the Arctic sea ice diminishes, waterways become more navigable, and
resources become more readily exploitable. Consequently, interest is growing to
capitalize on the natural resources that lie beneath the waters of all Arctic regions
(Huebert, 2005). If the seabed surrounding Hans Island is determined to have


resource value, any derived largesse will benefit whoever holds title to the island
(Byers, 2013).

Secondary Parties
In addition to the usual international players, such as the United Nations
and NATO, who could play a part in negotiations related to this issue, there are a
host of other organizations with special interests in the region including the
International Arctic Science Committee, and even the Association of World
Reindeer Herders (Lytvynenko, 2011). But perhaps the most significant player is
the Arctic Council, a forum consisting of the eight circumpolar nations (Canada,
Denmark, Iceland, USA, Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden) as well as many
observer nations including China and Germany. The Arctic Council is a
collaborative, cooperative, and forward-thinking body that has a track record of
arriving at rational solutions to concerns pertaining to the Arctic (Stevenson,
2007; Byers, 2014). This organization has the potential to provide a neutral,
trusted, and sustainable open line of communication between all parties which
many scholars, including Fisher (1994), Rothman (1997), and Maiese (2003)
consider essential to resolving conflict.
Claims to sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago have come under
increasing scrutiny and dispute (Byers, 2014). As reported by Godoy (2011), a
spokesperson from Pierre and Marie Curie University stated, Our main concern
is the regulation of potential economic activities in the Arctic and the identification
of Arctic governance options for European countries (para. 13). This statement
reflects the desire of other states to assert their presence in the Arctic region.
This should be a signal to Canada and Denmark that it would be prudent to
establish precedence for resolving a bi-lateral territorial claim in the Arctic before
other nations or organizations are able to impose their will in the region by other
means. As diminishing icepacks expose feasibly navigable sea-lanes, not to
mention increasingly large, and previously uncharted tracts of land and seabed,
questions arise regarding the demarcation of national boundaries and authority
over waterways (Baker & Byers, 2012).

Confrontation and Intervention

The current cordial state of relations between Canada and Denmark,
coupled with rising international pressure suggest that now might be the optimal
time to bring the issue of title to Hans Island to a final, mutually agreeable
Canada and Denmark have a long history of common alliances within
such organizations as NATO and the Arctic Council. These associations could
provide a rich pool of third-party consultants who could facilitate an accord,
providing what Fisher (1994) identifies as a vital requirement to build trust,
enforce norms, and otherwise establish a foundation for settling a dispute.


Folger et al. (2013) provided a useful tool, in the form of a decision tree, to
select the optimal procedure to engage the two primary parties (Canada and
Denmark). By determining the relative weight given to the five characteristics
noted along the top of the decision tree (see Figure 5), it is evident that the
problem-solving conflict style is the tactic of choice. However, the pairing of
problem-solving with another supportive style, like collaboration, may reinforce
the undertaking. This pairing may enhance the resolution process, as
collaboration is proven to be effective when the focus is on interests and issues,
as is the case here (Folger et al., 2013).

Figure 5: Style Selection Decision Tree

Validation of the problem-solving workshop approach was supported by
the findings of Fisher (2007) who illustrated its efficacy in Cyprus, the Middle
East, and other locations embroiled in territorial disputes. He detailed how
problem-solving workshops can facilitate a better understanding between parties
of their differences and commonalities, and promoted the usefulness of this
approach in the pre-negotiation phase of the process.
Workshops provide an opportunity for unique synergies to evolve. In the
pursuit of innovative alternatives to the Hans Island stalemate, the first step


would be to consider the range of conventional, and not so conventional

participants, from whom the kernel of a progressive idea might emerge. Various
case studies chronicled by Fisher (2007) inspired the following embryonic list of
participants for expert panels, symposia, cultural exchanges, or other workshop
1. Government and diplomatic delegates who could share official, and
unofficial policy and viewpoints.
2. Aboriginal groups that could advise on traditional means of dealing with
territorial and cultural issues.
3. Lawyers and jurists familiar with national and international law, as well as
similar precedents set in other locales.
4. The Arctic Council and other official organizations with expertise in the
5. Non-government organizations (NGOs) with insights on peripheral issues
such as ecology, climate change, aboriginal affairs, or fish and wildlife.
6. Institutes for Peace that collectively possess an enormous and varied
body of conflict expertise.
7. Academics, students, and other practitioners of anthropology, political
science, ethnography, geology, geography, history, arts et al.
8. Citizen action committees, and other special interest groups that may
impart alternative, extreme, or even revolutionary viewpoints.
9. Writers, journalists, bloggers, and other media practitioners who can
generate controversy, discussion, and also elicit input from the public at
large, using both traditional and newer social media platforms.
10. Corporations having an interest in Arctic capitalization.
This list is far from exhaustive, and would be subject to constant reshaping.
Various workshop formats can be fashioned to provide the richest environment
for creative discourse.
As Mayer (2012) pointed out, it is preferred that parties to a conflict not
relinquish the power to resolve an issue between themselves by ceding authority
to a third partythe International Court of Justice (ICJ), for example. In his view,
powerlessness does not promote a constructive approach to conflict (p. 334).
So this option should likely be discounted in the case of Hans Island.
Dialogue, as advocated by Maiese (2003) offers a vehicle by which the
humanistic aspects of identity and values can find voice and dispel some of the
polarization that exists on some issues. As a component of both pre-negotiation
and para-negotiation, dialogue, in a workshop setting, can foster trust and
communication not only between Canada and Denmark, but also with secondary
parties. This may encourage others to join the conversation on an interpersonal
and intergroup level.
The Hans Island case appears to provide an ideal scenario for the
application of the Rothman (1997) ARIA (Antagonism, Resonance, Invention,
and Action) framework, especially in the pre-negotiation phase. This process
allows for an expression of the seminal underlying humanistic motivations that


underscore the conflict, provides the opportunity to explore common and

divergent opinions, and promotes investigation of novel solutions.
Fisher (1994) draws a clear distinction between the settlement of an issue
and the resolution of it. The former usually involves compromise, or enforced
submission to a process, and is a less than ideal outcome. The latter promises a
more enduring outcome because it meets the needs of all concerned parties (p.
59). Resolution appears achievable in the case of Hans Island for several
1. A variety of interchangeable approaches are available to transform the
relationship between parties.
2. Cordial relations exist between Canada and Denmark.
3. The two countries share common interests and associations, which
nurtures accord.
4. The situation is uncomplicated by any current human occupation,
ecological, or security issues.
5. The remote location of Hans Island, far removed from any imminent
development or commercial water transit concerns, eases the pressure
that might be imposed by a rigid timetable for resolution of the matter.
6. The opportunity exists for Canada and Denmark to be seen as pioneers in
crafting a new model for Arctic geopolitical statesmanship and
In a world teeming with violent conflicts, the Hans Island dispute can provide an
opportunity to experiment with innovative, collegial methods of resolving an
international disagreement in a peaceful manner. Should wisdom and good will
prevail, we may bear witness to the birth of a significant new model that could
one day find its way into the conflict resolution toolbox.


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