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Hans Island and the polite fight over ownership

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In the remote north of the Atlantic Ocean, lies a tiny speck of an island. Named after a 19th century Greenlandic Arctic traveller, the half-square-mile Hans Island is as barren as any uninhabited island could ever be – a flat, exposed rocky knoll with no vegetation and no apparent natural resources. Yet, this nondescript piece of rock has been at the center of a territorial dispute between Canada and Denmark that has been raging for nearly half a century.

Hans Island is a barren little rock of about 1.3 square kilometers. It sits between the two countries in a portion of the Nares Strait called the Kennedy Channel. At the point where Hans Island lies, the Kennedy Channel is only about 23 miles across. Since nations commonly claim territory to a distance of 12 miles offshore, the two countries’ claims overlap, and in fairness, the boundary has been drawn right down the middle of the channel. The problem is, Hans Island lies right in the way of the middle line. Consequently, both Canada and Denmark lay claim to the little dot of dry land.

The League of Nations once ruled that it should go the the Danes, but when the august body was dissolved in the 1940s, the decision lost its validity. As thoroughly insignificant as the place is, national pride is involved, so there is a sort of rivalry about the issue. Remember who we’re talking about here, thought. This disagreement has long been known, and not until 1973 did they get serious enough about it to agree that the boundary should run up the channel to the Southern shore of the island and then skip over it to begin again on the North side. Hans Island was left in limbo as a no-man’s-land. Because the nature of the disputants is non-confrontational, no one took any “action” until 1984. In that year, Canadian troops landed on the island, not to set up a fort, but to plant a flag at the base of which they left a bottle of Canadian whisky. A pretty powerful message to any who might pass that way.

The fight was on. The Danish military responded soon thereafter by taking down the Canadian flag (and no doubt the whisky) and replacing it with not only a Danish flag and a bottle of Danish schnapps, but a sign proclaiming, “Welcome to the Danish island.” Take that! And so the Canadians did. They replanted their flag and left another bottle of whisky.

Since then, it has gone back and forth a number of times, no doubt to the delight of those assigned the duty to re-take the island (and the spirits). When Canadian and Danish warships on patrol encounter each other, they immediately spring into action and wave their flags at one another. Apparently this so-called “Whiskey War” is just too polite for the neighbors of the rivals – the US and Norway have each egged on their favorite team to amp it up and lay serious claim to the rocky bump, but the contestants aren’t taking the bait, negotiation is more their style.

International politics are going north to the future. You might say they are “polar”izing. Issues such as sovereignty, mineral rights, fishing rights, and free passage in the Arctic are a growing concern for the governments of Arctic Ocean border nations. The melting of the icecap has spurred shipping and industrial activity in the region, and as the businessmen and government officials see it, the fewer border disagreements, even if amicable, the better.

Canada and Denmark agreed to work together on a diplomatic solution to Hans Island in 2005, a process that is ongoing. Neither side wants to give up their claim to the place entirely and appear weak on Arctic territory issues, and connecting the borderline across the island would split it into nearly equal halves, which would see fair. Canada would then for the first time have two international land borders. Alternatively, it has been suggested by some scholars that the little island be jointly administered as a whole, which would definitely be the “nicest” way to solve the problem. So far, no settlement has been reached, so the “combatants” might as well pour another round and keep toasting each other.

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