Canada and Denmark End ‘Whiskey War’ Over Arctic Rock Possession


Hans Island is just a bleak kidney-shaped piece of rock in the Arctic Ocean, but for 49 years it has been the source of a rare territorial dispute for Canada. That’s because it is right in the middle of the international border between the country and Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark.

Over the decades, the feud has been fought in often curious ways. Since Canadian troops began visiting the island in 1984 to plant maple-leaf flags and leave behind bottles of local whiskey, Danes have regularly turned up to replace the items with typical brandy and their flags.

Ministers from both countries flew there by helicopter to assert their competing claims and examine the rock they claimed to rule.

Now, the enduring and — by and large — benign diplomatic standoff has come to an end. Canada and Denmark signed an agreement this Tuesday (14) that formally defines the marine border in the Arctic and resolves the issue of ownership of Hans Island: it will be divided, with about 60% of the rock being from Denmark and the rest from the Canada.

Foreign ministers of the two countries compared the peaceful and successful resolution of the dispute, even if it was protracted, with the violence and turmoil of other territorial struggles, most notably the Ukrainian War.

“This sends a strong signal at a time when we see major powers brutally violating fundamental international law, like what Russia is doing in Ukraine,” said Jeppe Kofod, the Danish foreign minister.

“It was the friendliest of all wars,” added Canadian Chancellor Mélanie Joly. “But when you look at what’s happening in the world today, we really wanted to give it more momentum and renew our energies to make sure we found a solution.”

The fight over an unimportant piece of rock dates back to 1973, when Denmark and Canada were in talks over limits and underwater rights — without reaching an agreement on Hans. There are oil and gas reserves in the Nares Strait, 35 kilometers wide, where the island is located and which separates the two countries.

Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia who studies Arctic sovereignty, says the resources are too deep and the area too full of icebergs to make deep-sea drilling viable.

“It would be extremely expensive oil. If we are drilling oil at these depths and at that location, in 10, 20 or 30 years we will have lost the fight against climate change.”

Some issues around fishing rights have long been resolved by other international treaties. But Joly said the newly established maritime border between Canada and Denmark – which she characterized as the longest in the world – will set an important example for other nations in dealing with issues related to the Arctic bed and the resources it contains.

The ministers said reaching an agreement involved talks by both countries with the Inuit, who live on both sides of the border and know the island as Tartupaluk. Kofod said the agreement protects his cross-border hunting and fishing rights and guarantees that the new currency will not prevent travel by Hans.

Given that Canada and Denmark are longtime allies and enjoy friendly relations, why did it take so long to reach an agreement? Part of the answer, says Byers, is the slow pace of UN processes to resolve maritime boundary issues, governed by the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty.

But he notes that highly publicized beverage deliveries by troops from both countries often precede elections, suggesting that some governments have found political value in prolonging the dispute. “It was simply a way to stir up a little patriotic feeling in a completely risk-free context.”

The deal will mean an end to the “Whiskey War”. The two ministers last exchanged bottles on Tuesday.

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