Polar Regions


Polar Regions | Research Guide International Law

The Arctic is a polar region located at the northernmost part of the Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The Arctic nations are all members of the Arctic Council, as are organizations representing six indigenous populations. The Council operates on consensus basis, mostly dealing with environmental treaties and not addressing boundary or resource disputes. Though Arctic policy priorities differ, every Arctic nation is concerned about sovereignty/security, resource development, shipping routes, and environmental protection (climate change). Much work remains on regulatory agreements regarding shipping, tourism, and resource development in Arctic waters. Scientific research in the Arctic has long been a collaborative international effort.

Unlike Antarctica, a continent surrounded by the Southern Ocean, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents. For this reason, it is governed in large part by the law of the sea, a body of unwritten but nevertheless binding rules of customary international law which were codified into the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Territorial disputes are absent in the Arctic, but, there are several existing or potential disputes over maritime boundaries and possible international straits that will likely become more important due to climate change, rising prices for natural resources, and new security concerns. As the Arctic is in crisis, international law has an important role to play, now and in the future.

Antarctica is Earth's fifth-largest and southernmost continent. It is located in the Antarctic region of the southern hemisphere, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice. It has no human population of its own, except for some permanent manned scientific research stations. Seven sovereign states have claimed sectors of land in Antarctica, but none of these claims have been recognized by other countries. In 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington to establish Antarctica as a region of peace and cooperation, and to deal with issues relating to claims of sovereignty. Its primary purpose is to ensure “in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. The Treaty is at the core of a number of related agreements which, together with the measures taken under the Antarctic Treaty and related agreements are often called the Antarctic Treaty system.

This Research Guide is intended as a starting point for legal research on the Polar Regions. It provides the basic materials available in the Peace Palace Library, both in print and electronic format. Handbooks, leading articles, bibliographies, periodicals, serial publications and documents of interest are presented in the Selective Bibliography section. Links to the PPL Catalogue are inserted. The Library's systematic classification → Polar regions in general and subject headings (keywords), Polar regions, Arctic, Antarctica and Antarctic Treaty (Washington, D.C., 1 December 1959) are instrumental for searching through the Catalogue. Special attention is given to our subscriptions on databases, e-journals, e-books and other electronic resources. Finally, this Research Guide features links to relevant websites and other online resources of particular interest.


Reference works

Recent books

Leading articles


Periodicals, serial publications


Systematic classification → Polar Regions

New titles

The Peace Palace Library has a collection of over a million publications. Each week, about six hundred new titles are added to our collection: books, articles, documents, online publications, etc. On this page, access is provided to this week's new titles on the Polar Regions. It covers a wide variety of topics relating to the Arctic, the Antarctic, Spitsbergen and Greenland. These include: regional and international governance issues, peace and security, dispute settlement, climate change, environmental protection, territorial claims and border disputes, law of the sea, exploration, exploitation of oil, gas and minerals, maritime navigation, and human rights issues, such as autonomy and self-determination, the rights of indigenous peoples to land and natural resources, their cultural rights and cultural heritage.

1. Defusing the Discourse on "Arctic War": The Merits of Military Transparency and Confidence- and Security- Building Measures in the Arctic Region
Defusing the Discourse on "Arctic War": The Merits of Military Transparency and Confidence- and Security- Building Measures in the Arctic Region / Benjamin Schaller In: OSCE Yearbook 2017 : Yearbook on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE): vol. 23 (2017), page 213-226. - 2017
Keywords: Arctic, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Regional security,

Librarian's choice

  • Dodds, K. and M. Nutall, The Scramble for the Poles: the Geopolitics of the Arctic and Antarctic, Cambridge; Malden, Polity Press, 2016.

    In August 2007 a Russian flag was planted under the North Pole during a scientific expedition triggering speculation about a new scramble for resources beneath the thawing ice. But is there really a global grab for Polar territory and resources? Or are these activities vastly exaggerated? In this rich and wide-ranging book, Klaus Dodds and Mark Nuttall look behind the headlines and hyperbole to reveal a complex picture of the so-called scramble for the poles. Whilst anxieties over the potential for conflict and the destruction of what is often perceived as the world's last wildernesses have come to dominate Polar debates and are, to some extent, justified, their study also highlights longer historical and geographical patterns and processes of human activity in these remote territories. Over the past century, Polar landscapes have been probed, drilled, fished, tested on and dug up, as their indigenous populations have struggled to protect their rights and interests. No longer remote places, or themselves 'poles apart' from one another, the contemporary geopolitics of the Polar regions has lessons for us all as we confront a warming world where access to resources is a concern for states, big and small.

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  • Abdel-Motaal, D., Antarctica: the Battle for the Seventh Continent, Santa Barbara, CA, Praeger, 2016.

    The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements—collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS)—regulate the seventh continent, which is the only continent without a native human population. The main treaty within the ATS came into force in 1961 and suspended all territorial claims in Antarctica. The Antarctic Environmental Protocol followed in 1998 and prohibited any minerals exploitation in the continent. With this prohibition up for review in 2048, this book asks whether the Antarctic Treaty can continue to protect Antarctica. Doaa Abdel-Motaal—an expert on environmental issues who has traveled through the Arctic and Antarctic—explains that the international community must urgently turn its attention to examining how to divide up the thawing continent in a peaceful manner. She discusses why the Antarctic Treaty is unlikely to be an adequate measure in the face of international competition for invaluable resources in the 21st century. She argues that factors such as global warming, the growth in climate refugees that the world is about to witness, and the increasingly critical quest for energy resources will make the Antarctic continent a highly sought-after objective. Readers will come to appreciate that what has likely protected Antarctica so far was not the Antarctic Treaty but the continent's harsh climate and isolation. With Antarctica potentially becoming habitable only a few decades from now, revisiting the Antarctic Treaty in favor of an orderly division of the continent is likely to be the best plan for avoiding costly conflict.

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  • Nordquist, M.H., Moore, J.N. and Long, R. (eds.) Challenges of the Changing Arctic: Continental Shelf, Navigation and Fisheries, Leiden, Brill, 2016.

    Nordquist, M.H., Moore, J.N. and Long, R. (eds.) Challenges of the Changing Arctic: Continental Shelf, Navigation and Fisheries, Leiden, Brill, 2016.

    The law and policy for the Arctic are increasingly of international interest, largely due to the melting of the Arctic ice cap. Challenges of the Changing Arctic: Continental Shelf, Navigation, and Fisheries includes contributions from global specialists dealing with the geomorphologic context, maritime delimitation and specialized topics raised by promising oil and gas prospects, particularly in the extensive continental shelf presented by Russia to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Arctic shipping has entered a novel, untested phase with keen interest in the opening of ice free shipping lanes and proposed regulatory regimes. Fish in the North Atlantic are moving north disrupting historic fishing patterns as well as traditional fish stocks. Agreements on the allocation of shared fish stocks pose significant management challenges. Both littoral and non-littoral user nations are concerned with maritime security as well as search and rescue preparations given the anticipated increased use of the Arctic Ocean.

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  • Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, Antarctica, by Silja Vöneky and Sange Addison-Agyei. The Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (MPEPIL) is a comprehensive online resource containing over 1600 peer-reviewed articles on every aspect of public international law. It has been re-designed to improve the look and feel of the site, and the search functionality. Written and edited by an incomparable team of over 800 scholars and practitioners, published in partnership with the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, and updated throughout the year. All included articles are peer-reviewed and treat international law from a global/regional perspective. This major reference work is essential for anyone researching or teaching international law.

Free Access

  • Antarctic Treaty Database (Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty)
    In this database you can find the text of measures adopted by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (including all recommendations, measures, decisions and resolutions) from 1961 to now together with their attachments and information on their legal status. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the texts in the database, only the text of the printed version of the Final Report of the ATCM is the authentic text. You can find photographic copies of the printed version under “Final Reports” below.  The data contained in this database on Parties to the Treaty and the Environment Protocol and on the approval of Recommendations and Measures derive from the official data maintained by the United States State Department as Depositary of the Antarctic Treaty.

  • Final Reports (Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty)
    Most of Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and Special Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting Final Reports are now available in .PDF format for browsing or downloading.

  • Meeting Documents (Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty)
    This database gives access to the available material presented to the ATCM as Working Papers, Information Papers and Secretariat Papers.

  • Documentation Centre (Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty)
    The Documentation Centre provides an online catalogue of the publications in the Secretariat´s library and a digital set of documents concerning Antarctic legislation, policy and programmes.


  • The Impact of Offshore Oil Drilling in the Arctic

    In July 2015 the Obama administration has given Royal Dutch Shell PLC approval to begin with limited exploratory oil drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast, in the Chukchi Sea. The permits were granted despite the nationwide protest (where people in 13 states gathered for a “ShellNo” Day of Action) and protests by many environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth. In this blog I will give a summary of the history of Arctic drilling and I will also discuss shortly the environmental concerns and technological and safety risks relating to offshore oil drilling in the Arctic.

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  • Arctic Sovereignty: Icy Roads to the North Pole

    Canada, the US, Norway, Russia, and Denmark have been gathering scientific evidence for more than a decade in an effort to increase their continental shelf claims in the Arctic Ocean Region.The potential delimitation dispute between Canada, Russia and Denmark seems to focus on the Lomonosov Ridge. The North Pole is located about 400 nautical miles from the northernmost island of Canada, Denmark, Norway and the Russian Federation. Under international law coastal state rights over the water columns are limited to the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, using the state’s territorial sea baselines as starting point.

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  • Hans Island : Crisis in the Arctic?

    Compared with other regions on the planet, the Arctic is warming faster. More of the Arctic is free of ice for longer periods. The possibilities for exploitation of natural resources and for control over Northern shipping lanes have prompted countries’ renewed interest in their competing claims to the region. Recently, Denmark (for Greenland) and Canada have clashed over their claims to a small, barren rock known as Hans Island.

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  • Norway and Russian Federation Sign Maritime Delimitation Agreement

    In Murmansk on Wednesday 15th September 2010 Norway and the Russian Federation signed a treaty concerning the maritime delimitation and cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The disputed territory covered 175,000 square km (67,600 sq miles), an area mainly in the Barents Sea between proven petroleum reserves on the Russian and Norwegian sides.

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  • The International Politics of Whaling: Recent Developments

    Whales, large, mysterious, intelligent, and endangered. Has any mammal inspired such romantic images of the sea and love for nature as much as the whale, yet aroused such controversy in global environmental conservation? King of the Seas, symbol of the environmental movement, meat and oil for commercial whaling. Over the years, large-scale commercial whaling has depleted a number of whale populations to a significant extent, resulting in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) issuing a moratorium on whaling in 1986. Some recent developments will illustrate the highly controversial nature of whaling.

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  • Arctic Council ratifies the Tromsø Declaration

    The Arctic Council meets at foreign minister level every second year, approving projects and guidelines. Due to the increased activity and interest in the Arctic, the Tromsø meeting decided that the Arctic Council from now on will meet at political level once a year. Denmark will take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Norway.

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  • Holiday on Ice?

    Tourism is an important source of income, prosperity and happiness for many people, but not everywhere. The increasing number of cruiseships, loaded with tourists, heading for Antarctica threatens the fragile ecosystem, habitat of many animals, in this region. Tourism to the frozen continent has increased nearly ten-fold in the last 15 years.

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The Arctic Centre is a national and international hub of information and centre of excellence which conducts multidisciplinary research in changes in the Arctic region. It is located in the Arktikum House, Rovaniemi, Finland.


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Systematic classification → Polar Regions