Svalbard, Arctic tourist destination between the North Pole, Norway, offers world peace councils


There is a “very real danger” of meeting polar bears in Svalbard, warns the official website of the Arctic tourist destination.

Of course, the opportunity to see a bear, from a safe distance, is one of the main reasons why travelers fly or sail to the archipelago, halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

But adventurers unaccompanied by guides are urged to pack flare guns, thunder flashes and a .308 Win caliber rifle with their hot drinks and GPS devices, strictly to defend themselves in case an encounter with a bear becomes ugly.

That weapons are one of the necessities of life in Svalbard is just an idiosyncratic characteristic of being in one of the most northern human settlements in the world. (Weapons are not allowed inside buildings and must be visibly discharged into the city; this is Norway, not the wild west.)

Other tourist attraction cards for Svalbard include the midnight sun and polar nights: there is no daylight from November to February. “The northern lights may even appear at lunchtime,” says the tourism website.

Then there is the now famous Global Seed Vault, where millions of the world’s plant seeds, including those from Australia, are kept refrigerated in a bunker carved into a mountain. The entrance provides a futuristic selfie backdrop. A new and elegant visitor center is planned, which will be called The Arc.

Svalbard also features the most northern statue of Vladimir Lenin, in the ghost town of Pyramiden. Abandoned by Russian coal miners in 1989, but with the leftovers of everyday life (glasses, bedding, machinery) intact, it is now a reserve of the occasional bear, tour guides and those with a particularly peculiar sense of adventure.

And for visitors who wish to eat in the Arctic, Svalbard offers a Michelin-starred restaurant where diners graze in roe and elder flowers and reindeer carpaccio while enjoying the wines of a 20,000-bottle cellar.

Other facts about Svalbard are more prosaic. If you need to give birth, you must fly to another place. If you die, your body must be blown up. (Cemeteries were closed by burials decades ago because nothing broke down on frozen ground.)

Even the way Svalbard has been addressed, since Count Wedel Jarlsberg of Norway and others signed a treaty on February 9, 1920, is unusual. Australia is a party to the Treaty of Spitsbergen (or Svalbard), which covers some 62,000 square kilometers of glacial islands and fjords dotted with walruses and snow geese. Far from being a relic of the post-World War I era, the treaty remains the subject of debate, while providing inspiration to resolve international tensions in 2020.

How is this like this? How do things work in Svalbard? And what could his treaty have to do with the South China Sea and outer space?

How did Australia get involved in an Arctic treaty?

Before the treaty, the Svalbard Islands (known as Spitsbergen until 1925) were in legal limbo. No nation directed the show. The activity had focused on activities such as whaling, seal hunting and Arctic exploration, including an unfortunate attempt by Swedish engineer Salomon August Andree to fly a hydrogen balloon to the North Pole in 1897. In 1920, mining of coal was shaping the settlement. in Svalbard.

The Paris Peace Conference in Versailles was a timely opportunity to find a solution to what the then Secretary of State of the United States, Robert Lansing, called “a unique international problem.”

Count Wedel Jarlsberg signs the Svalbard Treaty on behalf of Norway on February 9, 1920.Credit:The university center in Svalbard

With revolutionary Russia absent from the table, it was agreed that the sovereignty of the “lawless” islands would go to neutral Norway and would never be used for “warlike purposes,” and any part of the treaty could do business in Svalbard. Since then, Russia has acceded to the treaty, which has 46 members.

Australia was on board from the beginning simply because it was part of Britain’s domain, its participation was a “historical peculiarity,” says Professor Don Rothwell of the ANU Law School, who notes that Antarctica is, rightly, the focus for Australia on polar issues. “I don’t think it really reflects any Australian interest in Spitsbergen at the time,” he says, “and, as far as I know, Australia has not really expressed great interest in Svalbard since then.”

A polar bear in Svalbard. Bear hunting has been banned since 1973.

A polar bear in Svalbard. Bear hunting has been banned since 1973.Credit:John Rodsted

Why should we be interested in how Svalbard runs then?

“Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Svalbard Treaty is that it creates the most open migration zone in the world, in addition to possibly Antarctica,” says Andrew Simon-Butler of the Melbourne Institute for Social Equity at the University of Melbourne. “This completely visa-free regime, which Norway voluntarily extends beyond the parties to the treaty to all people, is combined with a thriving international community, particularly in the capital of Longyearbyen.”

Svalbard has approximately 2600 residents. Two-thirds are Norwegian, but the rest are from 49 other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, according to the Svalbard governor’s office, Sysselmann.

“People who live in Svalbard tend to be very motivated, educated, interested, curious and social,” says Rupert Krapp, a research engineer at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Svalbard. “There is no native or indigenous population, so each of us has made a conscious decision to come and stay. Those who do not prosper here tend to resolve this quite quickly after arrival and depart again. Those who really like it tend to stay as long as possible, usually for a few years or even up to 10 or more years. “

Of course, there are warnings about the “non-discrimination” approach of the treaty. You must be able to prove that you can support yourself. The Norwegian Social Welfare Law does not apply. There is no financial assistance for special needs due to illness, disability or age. Crime is a no-no. A Russian man who had just arrived in Longyearbyen was sentenced to 14 months in prison last year for committing the first robbery of a Svalbard bank.

Anyone can live in Longyearbyen, with warnings.

Anyone can live in Longyearbyen, with warnings.Credit:fake images

Extreme conditions are also their own disincentive. On February 9, the temperature is forecast to reach a maximum of minus 10 degrees in Longyearbyen. The sun will not rise. And there are other dangers besides bears. In 2015, an avalanche fell on the houses in Longyearbyen, killing a man and a girl and forcing the townspeople to find trapped families without disembarking.

Russia, which has a long-standing interest in Svalbard, and a presence there that includes the coal mining settlement in Barentsburg, tested the access regime opened in 2015 with the unannounced visit of then Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to Longyearbyen Airport while I was subject. to the travel sanctions after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. Rogozin, in the photo above, tweeted photos to mark his visit. “In response, Norway added that being subject to international travel sanctions as an additional reason for exclusion,” says Simon-Butler.

In turn, the Russian Foreign Ministry protested the “hostile step”, saying that “it did not comply with the spirit of international cooperation in Svalbard on the basis of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920”.

Sailing north of Svalbard between the melting of sea ice.

Sailing north of Svalbard between the melting of sea ice. Credit:fake images

What could Svalbard have to do with the South China Sea?

The connection between Svalbard and the South China Sea is not, at first, obvious. But, for Professor Rothwell and other experts in international law, the Svalbard Treaty offers a useful precedent for resolving territorial disputes.

“Svalbard has attracted more attention in the last 10 or 15 years because it has been seen as a possible way to solve problems in the South China Sea,” says Professor Rothwell. The islands and reefs (and the fishing rights that derive from their ownership) in the South China Sea are subject to an intense, sometimes violent, dispute between China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as the Philippines , Taiwan and Brunei.

“The way in which Svalbard has been administered is actually a good international example of how states were able to set aside conflicts and some differences to peacefully manage a set of very remote islands,” says Professor Rothwell. It may have worked well “because Svalbard is quite isolated and the treaty was negotiated after World War I, when there was obviously a lot of momentum behind trying to ensure that territorial disputes were neutralized,” but it still offers useful concepts.

The Svalbard agreement is known as a “condominium” in international law. “It is designed to reflect the shared ownership of the territory. Svalbard is the largest territory that has been the subject of a condominium agreement. There is nothing equivalent.

“Could you apply a Svalbard condominium solution in the South China Sea?”, Question. “It could be that Island X is Chinese but other states have an interest; Y Island is Filipino but other states have an interest; Z Island is Vietnamese but other states have an interest. Or I could say, “Islands X, Y and Z are Chinese, but other states also have legitimate interests in those islands.”

Professor Rothwell acknowledges that this idea has never been actively promoted by any of the countries with interests in the South China Sea.

The northern lights over Longyearbyen.

The northern lights over Longyearbyen.Credit:fake images

What could the treaty have to do with outer space?

The treaty also offers a template for other remote and inhospitable communities, says Andrew Simon-Butler. He has written extensively on the possible application of the Svalbard Treaty to outer space, a kingdom governed by the laws of the 1960s and 1970s, modern according to the standards of the Svalbard Treaty, but still being actively interpreted in legal circles to address problems in Space today

While outer space is considered “the province of all humanity,” the jury does not know if this means that the resources extracted are also the province of all nations. The United States passed a law in 2015 that allows its citizens property rights to resources extracted from asteroids and authorizes a US licensing program for space mining.


As Simon-Butler sees it, a regime for outer space could recognize the global sovereignty of mankind, but also provide the authority for individual space settlements and mining operations to be managed by a country in the way Norway directs Svalbard. . “Similar warnings could also apply to unrestricted access that exist in Svalbard, particularly, for example, if you migrate to a space station where air supply and housing will be limited.”

He also argues that there could be “a freedom of movement like Svalbard in outer space possessed by each person as a human right that guarantees that the economic potential of space is open to all.”

A bust of Lenin in the abandoned mining town of Pyramiden.

A bust of Lenin in the abandoned mining town of Pyramiden.Credit:fake images

Does this mean that everyone is happy with Svalbard in 2020?

It is no secret that there is a geopolitical struggle underway in the Arctic, which may be free of ice by 2050. Melted ice means opening shipping routes for both tourism and the military, and potential access to mineral resources. In 2017, Russia opened a military base in its northernmost territory, the Franz Josef Land archipelago, northeast of Svalbard.

Norway (a member of NATO), Russia (not) and other European nations with vested interests in the Arctic have coexisted against Svalbard, with fishing, including snow crabs, among the issues of disagreement open from time to time. Norway has established a fishing protection zone in the 200 nautical miles around Svalbard, but its right to do so is questioned.

Snow crabs are one thing. But the rights to exploit oil and gas are increasing in relevance, says Professor Rothwell. About this, the treaty is silent.

“Because the treaty was concluded in 1920, it does not adequately reflect the development of international law and, in particular, the law of the sea,” he says. “Norway says:” Well, the treaty says we are sovereign, so we have the right to enjoy these maritime areas. “

Oil and gas are not the only potential prizes at stake. In January, local media reported the discovery of minerals such as copper, zinc, gold and silver that are estimated to be worth billions of dollars in the seabed near Svalbard.

Activities for “warlike purposes” are not allowed under the Svalbard Treaty, which expressly prohibits “naval bases” and “fortifications” in the archipelago. The language is not as complete as in the treaties on Antarctica and outer space, which must be used expressly for “peaceful purposes.” Norway has one of its frigates visit Svalbard annually as a demonstration of its sovereignty, Simon-Butler notes, but does not conduct drills there.

In a part of the world so strategically important, the potential for tensions remains.

Three walruses swimming in Svalbard.

Three walruses swimming in Svalbard. Credit:fake images

What’s next for Svalbard?

“For us, biologists,” says Rupert Krapp, “coming to Svalbard allows us to access the ecosystems, fjords and the Arctic Ocean of the high European Arctic. Geologists, geophysicists and other researchers come here to do field work, measurements and sampling Other parts of the Arctic are usually much less accessible and often do not have the same technical infrastructure, and certainly do not have the same level and concentration as in Svalbard settlements. “

China opened its first research station in Svalbard in 2003; India opened one in 2008, adding an underwater observatory in 2014. Italy, Poland, Great Britain and, of course, Norway are among other countries that also have stations in Svalbard.

There is much change to observe. The Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the world average, says the Norwegian Polar Institute, with temperatures in the southwest of Svalbard projected to rise 2 degrees in 2050, twice as much as in the northeast. Even parts of the Global Seed Vault have had to be renewed after an unusually heavy rain seeped through the weakened permafrost and into its entrance tunnel.

The gateway to the Global Seed Vault, a type of backup storage for the world's plants.

The gateway to the Global Seed Vault, a type of backup storage for the world’s plants.Credit:fake images

Australian polar desert guide and former Longyearbyen resident, John Rodsted, has seen the changes firsthand for 18 years if visiting Svalbard. Permafrost is melting in a mixture of soil in some places. “You can enter the mud up to the waist,” he says.“The Arctic is falling apart in front of our eyes.”

Tourism is thriving. Some fly, others come by boat. Around 45,000 cruise passengers arrived in 2018 and another 17,000 traveled on expedition cruises, according to the Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators Association. A polar bear was shot dead after attacking a cruise guard who had entered the land to secure the tourist area in 2018. In January, a cruise operator was fined for violating environmental protection laws by Throw the anchor near a cliff of nesting birds.

Krapp expects to see a change in the next 10 years of short stays on large cruises to “a more exclusive and quality-focused regime, where smaller cruises bring tourists who stay longer and spend more locally.” (He would also like to see more renewable energy technology and zero emissions for settlements and stations in Svalbard).

A line of snowmobiles heads to the desert.

A line of snowmobiles heads to the desert.Credit:fake images

As for the treaty itself, Simon-Butler believes that it will be increasingly visible in the next century as more nations become interested in the Arctic. Now China describes itself as an “almost Arctic state,” he says. In addition to this, he says: “As a treaty that any country can sign, it provides the only location in the Arctic where all countries can legally establish a foothold to commit to the emerging Arctic economy.”

Professor Rothwell says that “as competition for Arctic resources intensifies not only between states like Norway and Russia, but also among new players such as China, Svalbard will become an important Arctic test case in terms of how international legal frameworks can stand against geostrategic rivalry. “


On February 4, Moscow requested a meeting with Oslo to discuss “restrictions” that do not agree with the treaty, including “the illegality of the establishment of the so-called” fish protection zone “by Norway” and “the expansion artificial nature protection areas to limit economic activity in the archipelago. “

“In Svalbard, Russia … does not intend to reduce its presence,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry. “On the contrary, we have long-term plans to strengthen, diversify and modernize it.”

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry told Reuters that the issues raised by Russia were “raised regularly” and “known.”

“All activities in Svalbard will be carried out under Norwegian laws and regulations.”

Meanwhile, in Longyearbyen, the centenary of the signing of the treaty will be celebrated with activities that include seminars on the subject, cake and the performance of a men’s choir. And for those who prefer to stay, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation is doubling its “slow television” format with a “minute-by-minute” cruise on the largest island of Svalbard, Spitsbergen. The trip, which will take place from January 31 to February 9, takes 13,319 minutes. Spectators could even see a polar bear.

Tracks of the polar bear, Svalbard.

Tracks of the polar bear, Svalbard.Credit:John Rodsted


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