Deja-vu at the North Pole.

Perspective on Jurisdiction and Military Presence, Conference on Emerging from the Frost, Security in the 21st Century Arctic. Tromsö, 25. september, 2007.

In my speech, I will relate how Iceland has proceeded in securing its maritime zones through agreements with other states and draw some lessons from it for the Arctic. I will also touch upon changes in security matters in Iceland and measures taken by Icelandic authorities in response to these new circumstances.


Between the autumn of 1975 and the spring of 1976, Iceland fought its third and last Cod War with Britain. This was the result of Iceland extending its fisheries jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles.

Peace was achieved through Norway’s intercession and an agreement was signed in Oslo on 1 June 1976. Norway placed great importance on peace amongst its neighbouring countries and allies within NATO in the North Atlantic, and Knut Frydenlund, Foreign Minister of Norway, interceded once Iceland had cut off its diplomatic relations with Britain to protest the actions of British war ships within the Icelandic zone.

When control over the 200 miles had been secured, joint lines of delimitation between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, Britain, Greenland and Jan Mayen needed to be determined.


Of the 290 nautical mile distance between Iceland and Jan Mayen, Iceland demanded a zone of 200 miles. The Government of Norway protested this claim and considered that a median line should be applicable to the delimitation between Jan Mayen and Iceland.


Under favourable circumstances, capelin may be caught in the area north of Iceland in the direction of Jan Mayen, and both Norwegian and Icelandic ships fish in that area. The two states disagreed on the rights of their ships to fish in the area until an agreement on the issue was concluded in May 1980. Norway acknowledged Iceland’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone in relation to Jan Mayen and Iceland acknowledged Norway’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone around Jan Mayen. The agreement also provided for special rights for Iceland to fish from migrating stocks in the Jan Mayen zone and this provision has proved practical for example as regards fishing from the Atlanto-Scandian Herring Stock.


Furthermore, the fishing agreement included provisions on the settlement of the dispute between the states on control over the continental shelf between Iceland and Jan Mayen. A Conciliation Committee, comprising three members, was established, chaired by Elliot L. Richardson, who was then the head of the US delegation at the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, and the other two members being renowned experts in the field of the law of the sea, Ambassador Hans G. Andersen of Iceland and Ambassador Jens Evensen of Norway.


When considering the division of the continental shelf between two countries, it can be relevant whether individual parts of the continental shelf can be regarded as a “natural prolongation” of the territory of either country. Geoscientists working for the Conciliation Committee studied in particular the geomorphology and the geological structure of the so-called Jan Mayen Ridge between Iceland and Jan Mayen. In their opinion, the northern part of the ridge is a prolongation, in the geomorphological sense, of the continental shelf of Jan Mayen but not of Iceland. On the other hand, they stated that the ridge itself was neither a prolongation of Jan Mayen nor Iceland as regards the geological structure.


The scientists were of the opinion that there were not great prospects of finding oil in the area, although this would have to be properly determined through more detailed research.


The Conciliation Committee was naturally not a court but had the task of submitting proposals to the Governments of Iceland and Norway on an accessible and reasonable solution to the dispute. The Committee investigated thoroughly any international practice and court rulings which could give it guidance in the course of its work.  Following this examination, the Committee proposed that the limits of the continental shelf would be the same as those of the exclusive economic zone.


Further, the proposal included that an area of 45,000 km2 on the Jan Mayen Ridge, with the best probability for finding oil, would be jointly exploited by Iceland and Norway.  Around one quarter of the joint area was on Iceland’s side of the delimitation line and about three quarters north of it. Iceland would hold 25% of the natural resources in the Norwegian part of the area and Norway 25% in the Icelandic part. The first phase of any research in the whole area would be funded by Norway.


The parliaments of Norway and Iceland agreed on this conclusion and relations have remained good in the Jan Mayen area ever since the agreement came into force on 2 June 1982.


Although scientists considered it rather improbable 26 years ago that oil would attract people to the area between Jan Mayen and Iceland, things have changed. Last March, the Government of Iceland issued a report with a proposal on starting oil exploration in the so-called Dragon Area, which is located at the Jan Mayen Ridge on the Icelandic continental shelf. The area is about 42,700 km2 and thereof around 13,000 km2 fall within the area covered by the Jan Mayen agreement. A few weeks ago, the Government decided to allocate funds to studying in more detail the climate and other natural circumstances in the area.


Icelandic authorities hold enforcement and management powers in the area which falls within their jurisdiction. There Icelandic legislation applies, Icelandic oil policy and Icelandic provisions on the monitoring of the activities, security measures and environmental protection. On the other hand, it has to be clear whether Norway intends to utilise its right to participate in the exploration and exploitation in the Icelandic part of the area covered by the Jan Mayen agreement. Should this be the case, it has to be stated in the licence tender that Norway has rights to up to a quarter of any licence granted. Representatives of the states have already started consultations on these issues.


For Iceland, the most pressing issue was the delimitation concerning Jan Mayen so that any doubts regarding jurisdiction following the extension to 200 miles might be removed. In 1997, an agreement was reached on maritime delimitation in regard to Greenland. The Danish Government had made a reservation on behalf of Greenland in 1975 concerning base points on islands north of Iceland. In the summer of 1996, Danish capelin fishing vessels started fishing in a disputed area north of one of the islands, Kolbeinsey, but in the spirit of strengthening good relations between the neighbouring countries, that is Iceland, on the one hand, and Denmark and Greenland, on the other hand, an effort was made to reach an agreement on the line of delimitation. The agreement, which was signed on 11 November 1997 and covers both the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf, provided that the island Grímsey had full effect in the delimitation and Iceland, therefore, acquired the whole area affected by the island, around 1,500 km2. In addition, Iceland acquired 30% of the area affected by Kolbeinsey, around 3,000 km2 of an area amounting to approximately 10,000 km2.


Simultaneously, an agreement was concluded between Iceland, Denmark/Greenland and Norway on the delimitation of a small triangular maritime area between Iceland, Greenland and Jan Mayen where their jurisdictions overlapped. The legal status of this area was complex as each party had full rights and jurisdiction vis-à-vis one of the other two parties and no rights or jurisdiction vis-à-vis the other. In the agreement, the area was divided into three parts, whereof Iceland acquired 35%, Denmark/Greenland 35% and Norway 30%, and thereby the aforementioned legal uncertainty was eliminated.


A disputed maritime zone was at the boundaries between the Icelandic exclusive economic zone and the British fisheries jurisdiction, which had a base point on the rock Rockall. In the summer of 1997, the United Kingdom ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Government then declared that it would withdraw its claim to a 200-mile fisheries jurisdiction from Rockall, as the claim was not compatible with the provision of the Convention stipulating that rocks, unable to sustain human habitation or economic life of their own, shall not have any exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. Consequently, relevant changes were made to the British fisheries zone and thus the dispute over the delimitation of the Icelandic exclusive economic zone to the south was settled.


Finally, in February this year, an agreement was concluded on the delimitation of a disputed maritime area of 3,700 km2 between Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

The dispute came about when Icelandic authorities drew a median line between Hvalbakur, an island off the east coast of Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, while Denmark, on behalf of the Faroe Islands, drew a median line between the mainlands of both countries, ignoring Hvalbakur. Iceland acquired 50% of the southern part of the disputed area, which will be open to fisheries by vessels from both countries, and 60% of the northern part of the area.


Through this agreement with the Faroe Islands, Iceland formally concluded the delimitation of its exclusive economic zone in relation to the zones of its neighbouring countries, 22 years after Iceland became the first western country to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1985.



As is well known, the Convention is the only comprehensive international agreement in the field of the law of the sea and applies not only to the sea itself but also to the seabed and the air space above. The Law of the Sea Convention contains provisions on all uses of the ocean, such as navigation, fishing and exploitation of oil and gas.


Amongst the obligations undertaken by Iceland through its ratification of this remarkable Convention was to comply with Article 76 on the determination of the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. This includes presenting a submission on the limits of the continental shelf to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) before the prescribed deadline in May 2009.


Preparation of the submission commenced in 2000 and is still ongoing. This work entails the most extensive research of the continental shelf around the country ever undertaken. The 200-mile exclusive economic zone of Iceland comprises around 750,000 km2. On the other hand, Iceland claims continental shelf beyond this limit comprising around 1 million km2, based on the provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention.


This includes three areas: one in the so-called Herring Loophole in the Norwegian Sea, one on the Reykjanes Ridge south-west of Iceland and one in the Hatton Rockall Area to the south.


Only Iceland claims continental shelf on the Reykjanes Ridge. However, Denmark, on behalf of the Faroe Islands, the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as Iceland, have claimed rights to the continental shelf in the Hatton Rockall Area. Iceland has emphasised that the parties reach an agreement on the division of the Hatton Rockall Area before presenting a joint submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. In 2001, Icelandic authorities initiated quadrilateral  consultations between the parties concerned on this issue and those consultations have since been continued on a regular basis. Although the aforementioned deadline to present a submission to the Commission does not apply to disputed areas such as the Hatton Rockall Area, Iceland wants to contribute to a prompt solution of this issue.   


In September 2006, the Foreign Ministers of Denmark, Norway and Iceland, as well as the Lagman, the Prime Minister, of the Faroe Islands, signed an agreement on the division of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the area between Iceland, the Faroe Islands, mainland Norway and Jan Mayen in the southern part of the Herring Loophole. This agreement was the result of extremely positive and constructive negotiations between these countries which lasted only a few months. Iceland acquired 29,000 km2, the Faroe Islands 27,000 and Norway 55,500 km2 of the area in question.


This division of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles is conditional upon each party successfully demonstrating its right to its negotiated part of the continental shelf in its submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The Icelandic part lies entirely within 60 miles from the so-called foot of the continental slope north-east of the country and belongs, therefore, without a doubt, to its continental shelf pursuant to the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Pursuant to its Rules of Procedure, the Commission does not have the authority to deal with submissions of individual states regarding disputed continental shelf areas, unless all parties to the dispute have consented to it. One part of the agreement between Iceland, Norway and Denmark/Faroe Islands is the mutual consent of the countries in regard to the presentation of their submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.


As far as I can gather, this is the only agreement on the division of the continental shelf beyond 200 miles that has been concluded between more than two states. The agreement may give certain precedence and serve as guidance in settling disputes of this type and is, at the same time, a textbook sample on how to settle disputes between neighbouring countries peacefully.


The reason for relating the struggle of Iceland for its maritime zones in such detail is that it shows how disputes, which may be imminent in regard to the control of maritime zones in the Arctic Ocean, may be solved.


In the first place, neighbouring countries, two or more, need to solve any disagreement on the delimitation of their exclusive economic zones and continental shelves within 200 nautical miles, including the baselines used for calculating these zones. Had Iceland and Norway been unable to reach an agreement on the delimitation of the maritime area between Iceland and Jan Mayen, the dispute would have prevented any negotiations in regard to other related areas.


In the second place, the states need to reach an agreement on the division of the continental shelf in disputed areas beyond 200 nautical miles. Such an agreement may either entail a complete division or some kind of a joint exploitation area.


In the third place, neighbouring states need to present their submissions, or a joint submission, regarding the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. On the basis of the recommendations of the Commission, the states may then determine the outer limits, i.e. the limits between the continental shelf and the international seabed area beyond, in a final and binding manner.








Due to its geographical position, Iceland has great interest in regard to activities in the Arctic. Climate changes will lead to further exploitation of natural resources in that area and increased arctic shipping for that reason, not to mention the impact of the potential opening of the North East passage to the Pacific Ocean. All of this will have great effect on the geopolitical position of Iceland.


The westernmost gate from the Arctic into the North Atlantic is the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland, about 340 km wide. The Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland is 286 km wide. The third and widest gate is the one between Iceland and Norway, about 800 km wide. This gate is divided into two main sea lanes by the Faroe Isles – one to the east to the European Continent and the UK, the other to North America.


During World War II, US convoys sailed north of the conflict area in the Atlantic, through the Denmark Strait, making stopovers in Iceland on their way to Murmansk, Russia. During the Cold War, tension between east and west escalated in the North Atlantic and the GIUK gap turned into the front line of NATO as regards the expansion of the Soviet fleet, and a sophisticated radar system was set up in Iceland in the eighties to monitor journeys of Soviet bombers into the North Atlantic, the number of journeys peaking in 1985.


Taking note of the oil and gas exploitation in the Barents Sea and the increased transport of oil by sea from Western Siberia, it is estimated that in 2015 a total of 500 tankers of 100,000 tons each will pass Iceland annually headed in each direction.


At the time of the Cold War, the military importance of Iceland increased in direct relation to the tension between east and west in the North Atlantic and culminated around the middle of the eighties. Icelandic authorities showed great consideration for the requests of the United States and NATO regarding military preparedness at the Keflavík Naval Air Station, wherefrom both submarine and air surveillance was conducted with the most advanced technology available at each time.


Debates on the stay of the US Defence Force were very prominent in Icelandic politics during those years. Those of us who supported the active participation of Iceland in the joint defence of the NATO states enjoyed extensive and successful cooperation with Norwegian experts and authorities during those years, and I recall participation in many conferences in Norway, for example here in Tromsö, on ways to enhance security in the North Atlantic.


It is in a sense remarkable how long it took the US Government to make a decision in regard to its military relations with Iceland after the Cold War, and how in the end the departure from Iceland of the entire force was unilaterarly manoeuvered in the autumn of 2006.


Despite the military departure from Iceland, the US still secures the defence of Iceland on grounds of the defence agreement from 1951.


Last August, US authorities deployed fighter planes, as well as AWACS planes, for a military exercise in Iceland, which included the participation of the Norwegian Air Force. At the same time, the Special Operations Unit of the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police exercised alongside special task forces of the militaries in Norway, Denmark and Latvia; in addition, Danish war ships and the Iceland Coast Guard participated in the exercise.


Some 24 hours after the military exercise ended in Iceland President Vladimir Putin of Russia, declared that Russian bombers would resume their flying over the North Atlantic, and in the early hours of 17 August, Russian military aircraft flew from the Kola Peninsula and headed south across the Atlantic, for example along the Denmark Strait and north by the east coast of Iceland.


In security matters, Iceland depends on contributions from civil law enforcement institutions that are also reliable cooperative partners with our neighbouring countries. A military-to-military relationship is not an option for Iceland as we have no armed forces.


It has been my task as Minister of Justice to restructure the police and the Coast Guard in order to take on new responsibilities. Decisions have been taken to purchase a new fixed wing coast guard aircraft and to build a new 4000 ton patrol vessel, both are scheduled to be operational in 2009. A collaboration agreement between the governments of Iceland and Norway aims for a joint Norwegian-Icelandic tender of specially-designed long-range search and rescue helicopters –  two to three of them for the Icelandic Coast Guard.



Furthermore, reorganisation of the civil defence administration is underway through the strengthening of its political aspect, the operations command being moved to a single operations centre providing access to all response units.


It is important to strengthen the cooperation of the countries adjacent to the west part of the GIUK gap, i.e. the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, to ensure, to the extent possible, safety of maritime navigation in that area. Iceland and Denmark have reached an agreement on close cooperation in these fields signed by myself on behalf of Iceland and Sören Gade, Minister of Defence, on behalf of Denmark.


In the near future, Iceland will, furthermore, accede to the convention of Britain, the US and Canada on search and rescue in the North Atlantic. In fact, I believe it to be very desirable to establish a multilateral North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum, a new maritime security and safety organization in the North Atlantic and in the Arctic. A Forum which would provide a framework for North Atlantic coast guards to interact and cooperate.


This might lead to all kinds of innovations in regional context, such as a standing coast guard force in the North Atlantic and in the Arctic, with member nations providing vessels and crews.


Ladies and Gentlemen.


I would like to express my thanks to Norway for organising this conference. Iceland will, as before, be an active partner in promoting peace and stability in the North Atlantic.


New and completely altered circumstances call for new methods where civil security bodies play an important role. Iceland aims to strengthen these bodies and establish close cooperation in their fields of operation in order to achieve our common goal, which is to create the best possible circumstances for the peaceful exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic.