By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 6, 2006
TORONTO -- A long-standing legal wrangle between the United States and Canada could complicate future shipping through the Arctic as global warming melts the ice in the Northwest Passage.
The United States contends that the Northwest Passage, though owned by Canada, is an international strait with free passage for all, like other straits around the world. U.S. officials say they are following a long-standing position in favor of keeping straits free to all navigation and want unimpeded movement of U.S. ships.
Canada counters that it has sole jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage and wants to enforce its own laws on ships in the Arctic waters. Canadian officials argue that their authority over the myriad channels and straits that make up the legendary route from the Atlantic to the Pacific is the best way to minimize unsafe ships and accidental spills in the pristine North.
The issue has suddenly come alive because climate change is reducing the Arctic ice pack that prevents regular shipping through the passage.
In an unusual twist last week, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, was quoted in Canadian newspapers as saying that he agreed with the Canadian position. "It is in the security interests of the United States that it be under the control of Canada," he said at a conference in Ottawa.
Cellucci's comments prompted the current U.S. ambassador, David Wilkins, to restate U.S. insistence that the Northwest Passage is an international strait.
The spat has flared occasionally in the past. Canadians were incensed when Americans drove the reinforced oil tanker Manhattan through the Northwest Passage in 1969, followed by the icebreaker Polar Sea in 1985, both without asking for Canadian permission.
Usually, however, the two countries have ignored their differences, agreeing that icebreakers do not need permission to pass and refusing to acknowledge the regular traffic of undersea nuclear submarines that use the passage.
Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia, said that if foreign ships begin using the route, Canada will lose its claim of oversight.
Canada has no search-and-rescue helicopters regularly based in the north and has disbanded the one military unit capable of dropping onto the ice. The country has no submarine that can travel under the ice cap. Its icebreakers are old and considered mid-weight; they leave the Arctic for the winter. The government has promised to build three new, powerful icebreakers and a deep-water port at Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, but has failed to fund any of those projects.
"If a foreign vessel wanted to come through here right now, it could," Byers said. "It's a big welcome mat for all the fly-by-night companies."