The Whiskey War For Arctic Sovereignty

Published by The Odyssey Online on February 2, 2016

Uncommon to the conventional idea territorial disputes that ordinarily include explosive ordinances, strategic planning, and armed forces, Canada and Denmark are embroiled in a war of whiskey and flag-planting over an uninhabited barren knoll called Hans Island.

Canada and Denmark have actively disagreed over the ownership of Hans Island since the early 1930’s when a League of Nations ruling that determined the island to be Danish territory. But contemporarily this decision retains little significance after the League of Nations fell apart throughout the 1930’s and was later replaced by the United Nations.

International maritime law only complicates the Hans Island issue since all countries have legal claim to any territory within twelve miles of their coastline. Hans Island is almost exactly in the center of the Kennedy Channel of the Nares Strait that separates Greenland from Canada. The strait is approximately nineteen miles wide in its broadest parts technically placing Hans Island within both Danish and Canadian waters.

Hans Island faded from popular consciousness and political agendas during World War 2 and the Cold War. But Denmark rekindled the jurisdictional quarrel in 1984 when an envoy led by Denmark’s minister of Greenland affairs visited the island, planted a Danish flag, and left a bottle of brandy at the base of the flag pole instigating the ongoing whiskey-war over the Arctic rock.

Ottawa’s most serious reaction to Danish ownership claims was in July 2005, the National Post records, when a large crowd of Canadian protesters congregated outside Parliament holding signs that read: “We Eat Danish for Breakfast,” and, in a military operation code-named Exercise Frozen Beaver, a group of Canadian soldiers visited Hans Island, tore down the existing Danish flag, planted a twelve-foot pole waving a Canadian flag, and left a retaliatory bottle of whiskey. One month later, a Denmark reacted by sending a warship to erect a Danish flag noting in a press release than an earlier flag had blown down.

Encouragingly, in 2005, Foreign Affairs Ministers from both nations met with the shared intention of “put[ting] this issue behind them” but adjourned unsuccessfully. Then in 2013, Ottawa suspended all military operations in the vicinity of Hans Island—a polarizing decision that received equal support and opposition from patriotic Canadians.

Yet, although Denmark and Canada maintain an amicable political relationship on the whole, the beginning of 2016 finds Ottawa and Copenhagen no closer to agreeing on the island’s ownership as the spat of flag planting and liquor gifting continues.

“When Danish military go there, they leave a bottle of schnapps. And when [Canadian] military forces come there, they leave a bottle of Canadian club and a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Canada,’” says Peter Takso Jensen, Danish Ambassador to the United States. Unfortunately, no currently available data indexes the quantity of whiskey expended in the serious yet bemusing island dispute.

Hans Island carries notable geopolitical importance, however, and secures more than territorial bragging rights for the victor of the ongoing “battle of bottles.”

The small rock island is only one small iteration of a much bigger scramble for jurisdiction of the resources, territory, and opportunities in the Arctic. As British-Canadian journalist Doug Saunders comments, “The fight for ownership of the Arctic Ocean and the seabed beneath it, driven by the possibility of finding immeasurable quantities of oil and gas, is a five-way battle between Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the United States in which Canada has no particular privilege.”

Although Hans Island has no known deposits of oil, gold, or other resources, substantiated assumptions that the seafloor and surrounding waters contain such materials are actively investigated by licensed Canadian and Danish corporations.

Actualization of oceanic effects from rising global temperatures also catalyzes the contemporary appreciation in the small island’s value. Warmer Arctic oceanic temperatures potentially enable year-round northwest naval passage, which could be a lucrative revenue generator for whichever country owns the waterway and regulates its traffic.

The periodic exchange of whiskey erection of flags will realistically continue into the indefinite future as Denmark and Canada persistently oppose each other’s territorial claim. An amused international community can only hope that the conflict over Hans Island will be resolved presently and peacefully as general Arctic interest and tensions have by no means disappeared.

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