The Spitsbergen Treaty is one of the oldest and most unusual international treaties still in force — and possibly the only one ever conceived in bed by two gay men.
Drawn up in almost comical circumstances in Paris in 1920, it gives the citizens of 46 countries the right to exploit the Arctic archipelago which is now officially known by its Norwegian name of Svalbard.
Before then it was regarded as “terra nullus”, meaning owned by nobody.
In reality, however, only two nations — Norway and Russia — have made much use of their rights.
– It’s Norway, but… –
The treaty recognises Oslo’s sovereignty over the islands, which are halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
But it also gives citizens of the countries who have signed the treaty an equal right to exploit Svalbard’s rich resources through any kind of “maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity”.
While the islands are Norwegian, Oslo is barred from militarising them, setting up a naval base or fortifying the “territories, which may never be used for warlike purposes”.
– Pillow talks –
The two key diplomats who drew up the treaty in Paris in the aftermath of World War I were having an adulterous affair at the time.
“It’s an epic tale,” said the influential former Norwegian diplomat Sverre Jervell.
“The Norwegian ambassador Fritz Wedel Jarlsberg was having a homosexual relationship with the French foreign ministry’s legal advisor, Henri Fromageot.
“The treaty was drafted in bed,” he added.
Jarlsberg wrote the first article giving Norway sovereignty over Svalbard and Fromageot added the following ones “saying Norway didn’t have complete responsibility.
“When the text was sent to Oslo, the foreign minister was really worried. He was against it because he was afraid of the Russians,” who had been major players in the region until the Russian Revolution and civil war that followed threw the country into chaos.
But the treaty was signed anyway, pushed through by Norway’s diplomats, and came into force 1925.
– Many fingers in the pie –
With revolutionary Russia and newly-defeated Germany excluded, only a handful of countries took part in the initial talks in 1919. Norway’s neutrality helped get it sovereignty, and Oslo was also astute in quickly recognising the Soviet Union in 1924, which formally signed the treaty in 1935.
China, India and the two Koreas are among the 46 countries that have put their names to the treaty over the years, with many like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela far from the Arctic.
– Natural riches –
With so much natural resources potentially at stake, the treaty has been variously interpreted, particularly over the sea.
Norway insists equal access should be limited to 12 miles (20 kilometres) around Svalbard — its territorial waters.
Russia and Western nations believe it should extend to the 200 miles of its exclusive economic zone, a concept that didn’t exist in 1920 when the treaty was signed.
The European Union — of which Norway is not a member but is associated through the European Economic Area — has unilaterally given permits to its fleets to fish for cod and snow crab within the 200-mile zone.
Despite persistent differences between Norway and Brussels on the geographical scope of the treaty, they have managed to agree cod quotas.
But the question of the snow crab fishery is still unresolved, complicated by the fact that the crustacean lives at the bottom of the ocean in constant contact with the seabed.
That means any legal ruling on it could have far-reaching ramifications on who owns the potential oil, gas and other mineral reserves below Svalbard’s seabed.
by Pierre-Henry DESHAYES