Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic January 09, 2011 - 3:56 pm

Search and rescue treaty could save lives, boost Arctic Council: experts

“If you're a passenger on a sinking vessel, you don't care what country owns the helicopter."

CHRIS WINDEYER

The next time a cruise ship runs aground in a remote corner of the Canadian Arctic, it could be Danish soldiers or the U.S. coast guard who rescue passengers.

A new treaty in the works at the Arctic Council calls for greater sharing and coordination between the council’s eight members on Arctic search and rescue.

The agreement, negotiated in December by the eight member nations of the Arctic Council, could be signed by the council’s foreign ministers when they meet in Nuuk this May.

“In recent years, there has been a marked increase in maritime and aeronautical traffic in the Arctic,” wrote Laura Markle, a spokesperson with Canada’s foreign affairs department. “This increase in traffic underscores the importance of having in place appropriate mechanisms to ensure cooperation and coordination amongst Arctic states in their search and rescue activities.

“The draft Search and Rescue Agreement will improve our cooperation and coordination with other Arctic states in responding to incidents, recognizing the unique challenges of the Arctic environment.”

The text of the treaty hasn’t been made public yet, but a statement by the Icelandic foreign ministry said the accord will provide “a coordinated emergency response scheme for the Arctic ocean and airspace, and the “new agreement will divide the Arctic into specific search and rescue areas, each Arctic state being liable for specific territory.”

Arctic observers say the treaty is a watershed moment for the council, which has focused primarily on environmental and marine science since its inception in 1995. That’s in part because the United States has strongly resisted talking about security issues at the forum.

But the new treaty means that could be changing, said Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, since Arctic search and rescue inevitably means the use of military resources.

“It [the treaty] is a slippery slope to something quite positive,” he said.

Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, said the treaty breathes new life into the Arctic Council by creating a “common project” for its member countries.

“One of the nice things about search and rescue is the priority of saving lives really brings people together,” he said. “If you’re a passenger on a sinking vessel, you don’t care what country owns the helicopter [that rescues you].”

The next step, Byers said, is for the Arctic Council to get a permanent home and a steady budget. Canada, he said, should offer to host the council in Ottawa or Iqaluit.

But with the vast majority of Canada’s search and rescue boats and aircraft located far from the Arctic, the deal could also put pressure on Canada to locate more search and rescue resources north of 60, both Byers and Huebert said.

For example, military search aircraft must routinely fly from bases in Trenton, Ontario and Greenwood, Nova Scotia to conduct operations in the Eastern Arctic. By the time those aircraft to reach Nunavut,  local Canadian Rangers and hunters have often been search land and sea for hours.

“This is something that raises eyebrows in other Arctic capitals,” Byers said.

Huebert said Canada’s new C17 Globemaster transport planes will be useful for moving search gear North in a hurry.

Ottawa may also look to construct more and better airstrips in the North to facilitate search and rescue. The government is also going to have to get moving on promised purchases of Arctic offshore patrol boats and new icebreakers to replace aging ships in the Coast Guard’s fleet.

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