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HomeSpits­ber­gen infor­ma­ti­onHisto­ry → The Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty

The Spitsbergen Treaty

History of Spitsbergen

Spits­ber­gen was no man’s land until the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Several nati­ons in nort­hern Euro­pe had occa­sio­nal­ly been inte­res­ted, but not to a degree that made it worthwhile to nego­tia­te the issue serious­ly. Most were hap­py to keep the archi­pe­la­go no man’s land; as long as nobo­dy else achie­ved con­trol, it was not important enough to rai­se inte­rest in poli­ti­cal cir­cles and to risk dis­pu­tes with other coun­tries. Most resour­ces such as wha­les and fishing were rather inde­pen­dent of the actu­al land area any­way. 

Things chan­ged in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, when mining beca­me the domi­na­ting field of eco­no­my in Spits­ber­gen. Sud­den­ly the ques­ti­on of land con­trol beca­me important, espe­cial­ly the­re was a demand for reli­able admi­nis­tra­ti­on and legis­la­ti­on. Various opti­ons were dis­cus­sed, such as a joint admi­nis­tra­ti­on of Spits­ber­gen by its nea­rest neigh­bours Nor­way, Swe­den and Rus­sia. 

The first world war drew inte­rest away from the Arc­tic. During the peace con­fe­ren­ces in Paris, the Nor­we­gi­ans could con­vin­ce other nati­ons to put Spits­ber­gen under Nor­we­gi­an sou­ver­eig­n­ty. This was for­mal­ly done with the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty, which was signed on 09 Febru­a­ry 1920 in Ver­sailles (the term “Sval­bard” was not used until later. Today, the trea­ty is com­mon­ly refer­red to as “Sval­bard Trea­ty”, but this term is not his­to­ri­cal­ly cor­rect).

Spitzbergenvertrag: Wedel Jarlsberg, Paris 1920

Fre­drik Wedel Jarls­berg, Nor­we­gi­an ambassa­dor in Paris,
signs the trea­ty on 09 Febru­a­ry 1920 in Ver­sailles.

In 1925, the trea­ty came into for­ce and was inclu­ded in Nor­we­gi­an law. The “Sval­bard law” (this is whe­re the term “Sval­bard” came in) came into for­ce on 14 August 1925. This day is con­si­de­red Svalbard’s natio­nal day in Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

But Spits­ber­gen did not beco­me a part of Nor­way just as any  other part of the main­land. The trea­ty defi­nes several frame con­di­ti­ons, such as

  • Spits­ber­gen is under Nor­we­gi­an admi­nis­tra­ti­on and legis­la­ti­on.
  • Citi­zens of all signa­to­ry nati­ons have free access and the right of eco­no­mic acti­vi­ties.
  • Spits­ber­gen remains demi­li­ta­ri­zed. No nati­on, inclu­ding Nor­way, is allo­wed to per­ma­nent­ly sta­ti­on mili­ta­ry per­so­nell or equip­ment on Spits­ber­gen.

In prac­ti­ce, this has not alway been easy. Espe­cial­ly the defi­ni­ti­on of what is or is not mili­ta­ry has been dif­fi­cult on occa­si­ons. In 1975, the ope­ning of the air­port near Lon­gye­ar­by­en rai­sed pro­test of the Sov­jet government, which sta­ted that the air­port could be used for mili­ta­ry pur­po­ses. Faci­li­ties to launch rese­arch rockets have to be remo­ved after every rocket launch. In the Rus­si­an sett­le­ment Bar­ents­burg, the size of the heli­co­p­ter fleet and the heli­pad has at times had a size far bey­ond the actu­al needs of a mining sett­le­ment and com­pa­ny.

Regar­ding mili­ta­ry pre­sence, “per­ma­nent” is an important term that should not be over­loo­ked. Norway’s coast guard is regu­lar­ly pre­sent in Spitsbergen’s waters, exe­cu­ting Nor­we­gi­an sov­er­eig­n­ty. The Nor­we­gi­an coast guard is part of the navy and thus a branch of the mili­ta­ry (in Ger­ma­ny, it is a poli­ce for­ce, not mili­ta­ry). Arti­cle 9 of the trea­ty says “… Nor­way under­ta­kes not to crea­te nor to allow the estab­lish­ment of any naval base in the ter­ri­to­ries spe­ci­fied in Arti­cle 1 and not to con­struct any for­ti­fi­ca­ti­on in the said ter­ri­to­ries, which may never be used for war­li­ke pur­po­ses.” Non-per­ma­nent mili­ta­ry pre­sence is obvious­ly not auto­ma­ti­cal­ly a bre­ach of the trea­ty, such as the regu­lar pre­sence of the Nor­we­gi­an coast guard or the occa­sio­nal pre­sence of a Nor­we­gi­an fri­ga­te, but Nor­we­gi­an poli­tics keep Nor­we­gi­an mili­ta­ry acti­vi­ties in Spits­ber­gen on a low pro­fi­le. For­eign armed for­ces are, howe­ver, obvious­ly a dif­fe­rent ques­ti­on. In 2016, Che­chen spe­cial for­ces were sud­den­ly seen on the air­port in Lon­gye­ar­by­en, on their way to a mili­ta­ry exer­cise in the area of the Rus­si­an ice Camp Bar­neo, clo­se to the North Pole. This was cer­tain­ly not met with gre­at public sym­pa­thy, but even Nor­we­gi­an offi­cials com­men­ted that this was pro­bab­ly not a bre­ach of the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty. In the Sval­bard White Paper of 2008-2009 (chap­ter 3.1.5, sec­tion C, page 23 of the pdf ver­si­on), the Nor­we­gi­an government makes it pret­ty clear that any for­eign mili­ta­ry acti­vi­ty in Sval­bard is pro­hi­bi­ted and would be seen as a seve­re bre­ach on Nor­we­gi­an sov­er­eig­n­ty (“Enhver frem­med mili­tær akti­vi­tet på Sval­bard er for­budt og vil­le inne­bæ­re en grov suver­e­ni­tets­kren­kel­se.”)

The trea­ty has ser­ved its pur­po­se altog­e­ther well. It is the only one of all the trea­ties signed in 1920 in Ver­sailles that is still in for­ce and it is not sub­stan­ti­al­ly ques­tio­ned by anyo­ne, alt­hough the­re are cri­ti­cal voices con­cer­ning par­ti­cu­lar issu­es. Rus­sia has occa­sio­nal­ly rumou­red that Spits­ber­gen might beco­me a source of con­flict, poten­ti­al­ly even lea­ding up to a war, accord­ing to the Bar­ents­ob­ser­ver in an arti­cle from 2017. Drastic words! This per­spec­tiv is obvious­ly not shared by Nor­way or any other trea­ty par­ty.

But – the­re has been cri­ti­cism. Pret­ty much the only aspect today whe­re most governments dis­agree with Nor­way is the situa­ti­on regar­ding the ter­ri­to­ri­al waters. Accord­ing to Nor­way, wit­hin the coor­di­na­tes that defi­ne the trea­ty area, only the ter­ri­to­ri­al waters are gover­ned by the trea­ty regu­la­ti­ons, that is the twel­ve mile zone (four miles until 2004, then the zone was re-defi­ned). Accord­ing to Nor­way, the waters out­side the twel­ve mile zone, but wit­hin the exclu­si­ve eco­no­mic zone (200 miles) are exact­ly that – an exclu­si­ve eco­no­mic zone whe­re Nor­way can limit the rights of any third par­ty. It is not sur­pri­sing that other governments and their citizen’s com­pa­nies with inte­rests in fishe­ries, oil and gas do not necessa­ri­ly agree with this. Amongst the governments that have expres­sed dis­agree­ment are Lat­via, who ent­e­red the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty as the cur­r­ent­ly last coun­try on 13 June 2016 (a few mon­ths after North Korea) and Rus­sia..

Spitzbergenvertrag: Mitgliedsländer

Signa­to­ry coun­tries in the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty.

An addi­tio­nal con­tract or pos­si­b­ly a ver­dict by the Inter­na­tio­nal Court of Jus­ti­ce in The Hague might sort this out, but Norway’s posi­ti­on is that the exis­ting trea­ty is clear and the­re is no need for fur­ther nego­tia­ti­ons or agree­ments.

Rus­sia is the only nati­on next to Nor­way which makes use of the right of mining. The sett­le­ments on both sides sus­pi­cious­ly kept an eye on each other during the cold war, but co-exis­ted peace­ful­ly. Today, the­re are regu­lar offi­cial and pri­va­te con­ta­cts.

Click here for the Eng­lish ver­si­on of the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty (pdf). This is a ver­si­on that was modi­fied by the Nor­we­gi­an minis­try of jus­ti­ce in 1988 – as men­tio­ned, the ori­gi­nal text does not know the term “Sval­bard” at all. For the rest, the text is as signed in 1920.

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last modification: 2020-02-12 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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