The Whiskey War over Hans Island, also known as the Hans Island Dispute, was a longstanding territorial dispute between Canada and Denmark that found its conception in the 1930s; it finally reached its conclusion in June 2022. The dispute revolves around the sovereignty over Hans Island, a small, uninhabited island located in the Arctic Ocean between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland, which both countries claim as their own. The conflict has been dubbed the “Whiskey War” because Canadian and Danish soldiers have been known to engage in a series of symbolic acts where they actively dropped off bottles of whiskey on the island as a form of assertion of their respective territorial claims. However, after almost half a century of a standstill, the dispute was finally settled in 2022 via diplomatic means.
The purpose of this research article is to examine the Whiskey War over Hans Island as a case study of international conflict resolution. This research article will examine the factors that led to the resolution of the Whiskey War of Hans Island, along with the history of the dispute, the legal arguments put forward by the two sides, the role of international organizations in the conflict, and the significance of the agreement reached by Canada and Denmark.
History of the Dispute
The dispute over Hans Island developed in the 1930s when both Canada and Denmark started to lay claims over the territory. In 1973, the Greenland Treaty was signed by the two countries, which established the maritime boundary between Greenland and Canada. However, the treaty did not address the status of the island’s sovereignty, which remained in dispute.
The issue remained dormant for the following 11 years. In 1984, Denmark announced that it was going to send a vessel to Hans Island, which prompted Canada to send a military vessel of its own to the island to assert its sovereignty. Since then, Canadian and Danish soldiers have periodically visited the island, raised their respective flags, and left bottles of whiskey as a sign of territorial claim.
Canada and Denmark have both put forward legal arguments to support their claims to sovereignty over Hans Island. Canada argues on the logic that the island falls within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles from its coastline and thus is part of Canadian territory. Denmark, on the other hand, counters Canada’s argument by stating that the island is part of Greenland, which is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines the maritime boundaries of states and their rights and responsibilities in the world’s oceans. UNCLOS establishes a baseline from which a state’s territorial sea, EEZ, and continental shelf are measured. Canada has argued that the baseline for the Arctic should be drawn from the outermost coastal islands, including Hans Island, while Denmark argues that the baseline should be drawn from the mainland coastline, that of Greenland.
In 2003, Canada and Denmark submitted their respective claims to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for the extended continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, which includes Hans Island. The CLCS has yet to decide on the competing claims.
Role of International Organizations
International organizations played a vital role in the Whiskey War. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for Arctic issues, gave both nations a medium to discuss, mediate and negotiate on the dispute diplomatically and has been instrumental for promoting dialogue and cooperation between Canada and Denmark, which played a significant role in the resolution of the dispute. The United Nations has also been involved through the CLCS.
The shift in Political Climate
One of the key factors that contributed to the resolution of the dispute was the changing political climate in the Arctic region. In recent years, there has been growing interest in the Arctic as a strategic location for military and economic
activities along with the advent Russo-Ukrainian war, further strengthening the West’s bonds. This has led to increased cooperation between countries in the region, including Canada and Denmark.
Mutual Willingness and Co-Operation
Another factor that contributed to the resolution of the dispute was the willingness of both countries to engage in diplomatic negotiations. In 2018, Canada and Denmark agreed to establish a working group to explore ways to resolve the dispute over Hans Island. The working group convened several times over the following years, and in 2022, the two countries finally found a resolution and signed an agreement that effectively ended the dispute. Under the agreement, Canada and Denmark agreed to establish a joint commission to manage the waters surrounding Hans Island and to cooperate on issues related to the Arctic region .
The Whiskey War is a complex territorial dispute. The conflict highlights the challenges of resolving competing claims to territory and resources in the Arctic, which is becoming increasingly important as climate change leads to the opening up of new shipping lanes and increasing access to natural resources. The case of Hans Island is a prime example of how international conflict resolution can be a difficult and protracted process, but it also demonstrates the potential for cooperation and collaboration between nations.
The resolution of the Whiskey War of Hans Island is significant for several reasons. First, it represents a positive example of how disputes over territory and resources can be resolved through diplomatic negotiations and international law. The agreement reached by Canada and Denmark sets a precedent for resolving similar disputes in the Arctic region and beyond. Second, the resolution of the dispute has the potential to unlock economic opportunities in the Arctic region. The waters surrounding Hans Island are believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves, and the establishment of a joint commission to manage these resources could lead to increased exploration and development in the area.
“Canada and Denmark end a decades-long dispute over the barren rock in the Arctic.” The Guardian. June 14, 2022.
“Hans Island.” The Canadian Encyclopedia
Austen, Ian (June 14, 2022). “Canada and Denmark End Their Arctic Whisky War.” The New York Times