Northern Sea Route: International Law Perspectives

Northern Sea Route: International Law Perspectives

Jędrzej Górski (City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6954-1.ch014


The Northern Sea Route (NSR) passes through international waters and therefore is subjected to international regimes which encroach upon the regulatory sovereignty of states having stakes in the Arctic. These commitments cover freedom and safety of navigation, delimitation of exclusive economic zones, and obligations related to sustainability such as marine pollution, or conservation of fisheries. Russia's historical claims to sovereignty over the navigation along the NSR have been substantiated after the adoption of the UNCLOS which allowed states to take regulatory actions against marine pollution in ice-covered areas. Such special rights come in tandem with the provision of public goods such as piloting, icebreaking, and rescue services by Russian authorities and state-owned enterprises. The issue of the right to natural resources along the NSR will not be completely settled until a conclusive decision on Russian claims to extended continental shelf filed under the UNCLOS. Sustainability issues are least controversial and subject to unhindered intergovernmental cooperation.
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The use of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is chiefly Russia’s development strategy, albeit with some backing of Russia’s East Asian regional partners potentially benefitting from an increased freight through the NSR. At the same time, the NSR obviously passes through international waters and is subjected to multifold international regulatory regimes set forth in such fundamental documents as the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), relatively recent Polar Code, or dozens of documents adopted since the 1990s by organizations such as the Arctic Council (AC) or the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The primary issue which here arises is how to effectively strike a balance between legitimate interests of Russia and its potential partners incurring the cost of the development of infrastructure accompanying the NSR with the stakes of in the international community in the freedom of navigation (FON) in international waters. Numerous other issues, where international commitments might encroach upon the governance of the NSR and upon regulatory sovereignty of states having stakes in the Arctic, among others, include safety of navigation, delimitation of borders and of exclusive economic zones (EEZ), plus obligations related to sustainability issues such as marine pollution, conservation of fisheries, or protection of heritage sites and of indigenous peoples.

The purpose of this chapter is to review the core provisions of international instruments affecting the economic activity along the NSR with an emphasis on shipping, and to a limited extent address their implementation in Russia. This chapter starts by discussing the FON with an emphasis on the status of straits and safety of navigation along the NSR. Then it moves onto discussing the exploitation of national resources in the region with an emphasis on the Russian claims to the continental shelf. Next, this chapter covers various sustainability issues with an emphasis on marine pollution. The chapter concludes by pondering on possible solutions, further research directions, and final conclusions.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Freedom of Navigation: A principle stemming from international customary law that a ship of any flag shall navigate uninterrupted by other states, except where some limitations of the freedom of navigation are permitted under international law.

Law of the Sea: A body of public international law that regulates interactions between public actors, in particular sovereign states, regarding maritime matters such as freedom of navigation, right to resources and issues of jurisdiction in water areas.

High Seas: Also known as international waters, are waters over which no state have sovereignty and all states are entitled to free navigation, overflight, fishing, research as well as construction of pipelines and cables.

Extended Continental Shelf: An actual continental shelf extending over the limit of 200 nautical miles in which coastal states can have the same rights as in the exclusive economic zone if recognized by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Marine Pollution: An entry into the ocean of waste, particles or invasive organism through ship pollution, deep sea mining, land runoff, direct discharge, or atmospheric pollution.

Safety of Navigation: The condition of being unlikely to cause danger in navigation, enhanced by a body of rules covering issues such as radio-communications, construction of ships, fire protection, life-saving appliances, the carriage of cargoes, and special measures for high speed ships.

Exclusive Economic Zone: A sea zone, also known as legal continental shelf, stretching from the baseline out to up to 200 nautical miles, in which coastal states have an exclusive right of scientific research and exploration, protection and exploitation of living and non-living natural resources and development of artificial islands and installations.

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