Svalbard: Where everyone, including polar bears, roams free

© Mateusz War. / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0
Longyearbyen Harbour in July 2008.

Mine damer og herrer, velkommen til Longyearbyen.

The pilot’s voice crackles over the intercom as your morning flight from Oslo touches down at Svalbard Airport, 78 degrees north. You’re told that it’s a balmy 7 degrees outside, the average high for midsummer. Better put that goose-down jacket on. Stepping onto the tarmac is surreal, there are airport vehicles racing around with baggage, and a modern terminal with all the amenities of home, confirmed by the smell of freshly-brewed coffee wafting out of the door. Across the fjord on the shoreline, a polar bear is going for a run down the beach.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Longyearbyen.

“Longyear Town” is the capital of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. It is the world’s northernmost town with more than two thousand permanent residents. The town has all the hallmarks of your average 21st century community, including an international airport, a supermarket, a church, a hospital, schools, hotels, a sports centre, a university centre and a car dealership. Unlike the average town, it also sports a satellite tracking station, a seed vault carved deep into the side of a mountain, more snowmobiles than humans and to top it off, a permanent population of polar bears just on its doorstep.

According to Wikipedia, “polar bears are the iconic symbol of Svalbard, and one of the main tourist attractions.” (March 2016). They roam freely outside the archipelago’s settlements, which also include the towns of Ny-Ålesund and Barentsburg. The latter is our link to international law. The town is effectively owned and operated by a Russian mining company, and its residents are predominantly Russian citizens. What are they doing here? They are there make a living.

The Svalbard Treaty, signed in Paris on 9th February 1920, contains a unique set of principles not easily found elsewhere: the principle of non-discrimination combined with sovereignty. While the treaty conferred ‘absolute’ sovereignty over the archipelago to Norway, it also curbed that sovereignty by allowing all nationals of treaty signatories free access to the entire territory and the freedom to “carry on there without impediment all maritime, industrial, mining and commercial operations on a footing of absolute equality.” (Article 3). Nationals also “enjoy equally the rights of fishing and hunting in the territories… and in their territorial waters.” (Article 2). Nationals making use of these rights are still subject to Norwegian law and are therefore not completely free to go off the rails. Even Norwegian law-making power is curbed in this respect, as Article 3 goes on to state that “[it] is agreed that in every respect and especially with regard to exports, imports and transit traffic, the nationals… their ships and goods shall not be subject to any charges or restrictions which are not borne by the nationals, ships or goods which enjoy, in Norway, the treatment of the most favoured nation.” Basically, treat everyone as if they are Norwegian, even if they aren‎’t.

The effect of the treaty also has deeper impacts on Norway’s legislative, executive and judicial authority. For example, taxes on Svalbard can only be so high as to provide for the archipelago, which is pretty much negligible when compared to mainland Norwegian taxes. Norwegian administrative law also has very limited application on the islands. Foreign vessels travelling to and from Svalbard are entitled to put into Norwegian ports on the mainland.

What does Norway think of all of this? Vær så god! Norway has benefited greatly from its jurisdiction over Svalbard, reaping benefits from mining, fishing, science and tourism. Yet the principle of non-discrimination has allowed others to join in the fun, drawing a level of attention to the remote Arctic Archipelago that would otherwise be non-existent. More importantly for you, the tourist from Down Under stepping off that plane at Svalbard Airport, what does the treaty do for you? Well, Australia is a signatory to the treaty and so you can enter the territory (without a visa) and do everything from fishing to setting up a business, complying with Norwegian law of course.

Just make sure you have something to deal with the polar bears if you leave town.

Wygene Chong is a second-year Juris Doctor student at the University of Western Australia, and Ordinary Committee Member at the UWA International Law Club.

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