International Strait or Internal Waters?

The Northwest Passage, a waterway going through North America’s northern coast, is the focus of this article. Once considered to be completely impassable, receding Arctic ice is now pointing to a time before the end of the century when the Northwest Passage will be passable, at least during summer months. The possibility of an ice-free passage has increased the ownership and legal status dispute between the United States, Canada, and the European Union (EU). While Canada claims the Northwest Passage as part of its internal waters, the U.S. and EU argue that it is an international strait, subject only to international regulation. The dispute began in 1988, over differing interpretations of both customary international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The author's detailed history of the dispute notes that its resolution has important implications for the U.S. Coast Guard. Should Canada prevail, laws could then be enacted to protect the waterway, effectively controlling access. International shipping traffic, including Coast Guard vessels, would then be subject to Canadian regulations in order to gain passage through the waterway. The author acknowledges that resolution will likely be difficult and may eventually involve an international court or arbitral tribunal. Moreover the end of the dispute would create an international maritime law precedent that will affect future disputes involving similar waterways, including the Torres Strait (claimed by Australia) and the Strait of Hormuz (claimed by Iran).


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  • Accession Number: 01146003
  • Record Type: Publication
  • Files: TRIS
  • Created Date: Dec 13 2009 6:22PM