When diplomats got into erstwhile smoke-filled rooms, it must be difficult to thrash out an agreement which covers every conceivable situation. Take the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This agreement sets out the definition of territorial waters which, for the uninitiated, extend twelve miles from the low water mark of a coastal state. The state involved is entitled to claim that stretch of water as their own but merchant shipping is allowed free passage.
No doubt they were all pleased to have got that one sorted out but they had forgotten the little matter of Hans Island.
Hans Island is about half a square-mile in size, is uninhabited and has no obvious mineral resources. It is slap bang in the middle of the Nares Strait which separates Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark, from Canada. Crucially, the Nares Strait at this point is just 22 miles wide and so under the Convention both the Danes and the Canadians were entitled to call it their own.
So who had title to the island?
The League of Nation’s Permanent Court of International Justice considered the matter as early as 1933 and came down in favour of the Danes. But by that time the League of Nations was on its last legs and soon fell apart, meaning that their decision on the fate of Hans Island carried little weight. The dispute rumbled on.
It next flared up in 1984 when the Danish minister of Greenland affairs visited the island and provocatively stuck a Danish flag on the rocky outcrop. Beneath the flag he stuck a sign, saying “welcome to the Danish island” and left a bottle of schnapps.
This sparked what has been known as the whiskey war. The Canadians could not let the incident pass and so when a delegation of their military visited the island, they raised the Canadian flag, left a sign, saying “welcome to Canada” and left bottles of Canadian Club. And so an extraordinary bout of tit-for-tat was started, Danish and Canadian flags being left as each country’s representatives visited and bottles of hooch placed below the flagstaff. It is still going on and if you are in the area and fancy a drink, you could do worse than land at Hans Island.
In 2005 diplomats from Canada and Denmark agreed a set of protocols to determine the fate of the island amicably but, so far, an equitable solution has eluded them. In 2015 a couple of academics, as is their wont, stuck their noses into this most gentle of territorial disputes by suggesting that the island should be a condominium, shared jointly by the two countries.
What to many seems a sensible way out of an intractable problem has yet to be adopted. After all, there is too much at stake, not least national pride. I suspect that the fate of Hans Island will not be resolved for some time yet and that the extraordinary display of tit-for-tat that the whiskey war is will continue for a while.
This post first appeared on Windowthroughtime | A Wry View Of Life For The World-weary, please read the originial post: here