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DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS

What does resolution of Denmark-Canada ‘whisky war’ tell us about international relations?

Canada and Denmark on Tuesday finally settled the largely good-natured "whisky war" that was fought for decades with weapons such as flags and bottles of alcohol over a tiny, barren, and uninhabited outcrop in the Arctic.

What does resolution of Denmark-Canada 'whisky war' tell us about international relations?
Greenland Prime Minister Mute Bourup Egede, Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod and Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly sign the agreement to partition Hans Island. Photo: Justin Tang/AP/Ritzau Scanpix

The two sides formally announced a deal to split Hans Island and effectively create the first land border between Canada and Europe at a signing ceremony in Ottawa with Canadian and Danish foreign ministers.

READ ALSO: Why Denmark and Canada are about to share a border

Dividing up the kidney-shaped island and resolving the 49-year-old benign impasse was held up as a model for peacefully resolving territorial disputes — contrasted with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The Arctic is a beacon for international cooperation, where the rule of law prevails,” Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly told news wire AFP.

“As global security is being threatened, it’s more important than ever for democracies like Canada and Denmark to work together, alongside Indigenous peoples, to resolve our differences in accordance with international law.”

The waggish row over the 1.3 square kilometre Hans Island, which sits between Ellesmere and Greenland, dated back to 1973, when a marine boundary was drawn between Canada and Greenland, part of the Danish kingdom.

Danes and Canadians have visited the rock by helicopter over the past decades to lay claim to it, leading to diplomatic protests, online campaigns and even a Canadian call to boycott Danish pastries. 

During those ministerial visits, each side would plant a flag and leave behind a bottle of whiskey or schnapps for the other to enjoy, along with comical notes.

“Many have called it the whisky war. I think it was the friendliest of all wars,” Joly said of the territorial dispute — which had drawn in no less than 26 foreign ministers over the decades — at a news conference with her Danish counterpart Jeppe Kofod.

Kofod said that its resolution, however, comes at a time when “the ruled-based international order is under pressure” and democratic values “are under attack.”

“We see gross violations of international rules unfold in another part of the world,” he said, alluding to the war in Ukraine. 

“In contrast, we have demonstrated how longstanding disputes can be resolved peacefully by playing by the rules,” Kofod said, adding that he hoped Canada and Denmark’s experience will “inspire other countries to follow the same path.”

“This sends a strong signal: diplomacy and the rule of law actually works, and that a great result can be achieved by following the rules.”

As they exchanged bottles on Tuesday, Joly and Kofod laughed off suggestions that Canada might join the EU now that the two share a land border.

Joly quipped that a Canadian singer would surely enter the next Eurovision Song Contest, while Kofod offered: “Welcome Canada to the European continent!”

Snow-covered Hans Island is uninhabitable, but the onset of global warming is bringing more ship traffic to the Arctic, and opening it up to fishing and resources exploration — although maybe not in the area of the island.

Arctic expert Michael Byers noted that “the island is so incredibly remote as to make it uneconomical to contemplate any serious activity there.”

Putting off resolution of this unusual territorial dispute, however, made for good political theater in both countries, flaring up ahead of elections.

“It was an entirely risk-free sovereignty dispute between two NATO allies over an insignificant, tiny island,” Byers said.

Denmark had also feared that losing the ownership battle would undermine relations with Greenland, while Canada worried that a loss would weaken its negotiating position in a more consequential dispute with the United States over the Beaufort Sea, in far northwestern Canada, believed to be rich in hydrocarbons.

More recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “has not made Arctic sovereignty part of his brand,” in contrast to his predecessor, Byers said. 

“So that reduced the temperature, at least from our side.”

“But most importantly, Russia invaded Ukraine, and that created an opportune moment to tell the world that responsible countries settle territorial disputes in a peaceful way,” he said.

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GREENLAND

Why Denmark and Canada are about to share a border

A half-century-long peaceful dispute over an uninhabited island has ended after an agreement was reached between Denmark, Greenland and Canada.

Why Denmark and Canada are about to share a border

The 50-year spat over Hans Island has been resolved after the countries agreed to a partition of the island and the Labrador Sea, which separates Greenland and Canada.

The deal means that the Danish kingdom – of which Greenland is an autonomous territory – will be extended by an area the size of Jutland, Funen and Zealand combined.

Hans Island is a barren island around 1.3 square kilometres in size. Located between Greenland and Canada, it is symbolically significant for both countries.

Talks have been ongoing since a special focus group was appointed in 2018 in an effort to find a solution to the longstanding territorial dispute.

The agreement means a border will run from the north to the south of the island along a ridge, with one half being part of the Danish kingdom and the other Canadian territory.

Should Greenland ever become fully independent from Denmark, the Hans Island area would become part of Greenland, which is itself the world’s largest island.

In addition to partitioning Hans Island, the agreement also fixes a maritime border stretching a distance of 3,882 kilometres from the Lincoln Sea to the Labrador Sea. This border will be the world’s longest sea border and the most northerly part of the Schengen area.

One half of the area separated by the new sea border will also become part of Denmark’s territory.

The agreement was scheduled to be signed by the three countries at a ceremony on Tuesday. It must also be approved by the Danish parliament. This is expected to be a formality.

The dispute over the island has been ongoing since the 1970s but has always been peaceful.

In the 2000s, Denmark asserted its claims to the island on several occasions by raising the Danish flag and leaving a bottle of schnapps. Canada responded by leaving its own flag and a bottle of whisky.

The dispute has not affected the Inuit population of the area, who use the island for navigation purposes. It is known by the Thule people as Tartapaluk, meaning “kidney shaped”, while the name Hans comes from a Greenlandic hunter and expedition leader.

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