Arctic nations were yesterday accused of paving the way for a polar "carve up" when they signed a deal aimed at resolving territorial disputes.
The agreement was signed in Greenland by ministers from Russia, the US, Norway, Denmark and Canada, and sought to cool down an increasingly heated scramble for the Arctic, driven by the prospect of oil and gas reserves made newly accessible by the melting of the polar icecap.
"The five nations have now declared that they will follow the rules. We have hopefully quelled all myths about a race for the North Pole once and for all," said the Danish foreign minister, Per Stig Møller, who co-hosted the meeting.
Last year, Russia sent a submarine under the icecap to plant a national flag on the seabed to underline its territorial claims. Denmark has planted a flag on Hans island, a territory Canada also has claims on and has announced plans to set up a military training base and a deep sea port in the disputed region.
Yesterday's declaration said that all five nations would abide by the 1982 UN convention on the law of the sea, which determines territorial claims according to coastlines and undersea continental shelves. A UN panel is due to decide on control of the Arctic by 2020.
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The law of the sea is unlikely to resolve all the territorial disputes in play as the Arctic melts. Both Denmark and Russia claim the Lomonosov ridge under the pole is part of their territory. The Danes seek to prove it is a geological extension of Greenland, a self-governing Danish territory.
Critics also questioned the inclusion of the US, which has not ratified the law of the sea. Rob Huebert, of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies in Calgary, argued: "The move by the Danes to invite the Americans to the meeting about the northern continental shelf raises the possibility that the Americans may gain the benefits of the convention without having to shoulder any of the responsibilities. Although this may not be the Danes' intent, one needs to ask why they want to hold a meeting to discuss the Arctic continental shelf with a country that refuses to become a party to the treaty."