Jan 03, 2023

Santa in the Hot Zone

DEC 31, 2022 12:01 AM


LONG before the war in Ukraine, I went to a place nearest to the North Pole together with my classmate Perry Pe and a few bosom friends. The North Pole as you know is the bailiwick of Santa Claus, the kingpin of Christmas mornings, even in a country as hot, as humid and as sultry as our sweltering republic.

After our arrival at Svalbard Airport, we boarded an arctic coaster which scooted us immediately to our destination. I was a bit confused about the sunlight until I remembered that we were in the land of the midnight sun where this celestial body at that time of the year is on the horizon almost 24 hours a day.

The place was white, cold and almost isolated; there was a gentle breeze of frozen air. I saw a gigantic mailbox which was supposed to contain letters to Santa; I did not know then that the official address of Santa is 123 Elf Road, North Pole, 88888. There were huskies, well-stocked restaurants, hotels, a supermarket, a small mall and... Filipinos. There were Filipinos on board fishing vessels, in the only supermarket in town and walking around on the soft snow.

We arrived at Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, the largest in Svalbard and the world's permanently inhabited community in the farthest north of the globe. Svalbard is an archipelago under the sovereignty of Norway. It used to be internationally common land until the end of World War I and the Versailles negotiations which led to the recognition of Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago through the Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Treaty of 1920.

The original treaty was signed by the United States of America, Norway, Denmark, France, Sweden, Germany and Great Britain. Several other States later acceded to the treaty, including Russia, in 1935. Recognition of Norway's sovereignty over the archipelago was subject to the condition that ships and nationals of contracting parties shall enjoy equal rights of fishing and hunting in the territory.

The nationals of the contracting parties were also given equal liberty of access to the waters, fjords and ports in the territories specified in the agreement. They were also allowed without impediment to carry on maritime, industrial and mining operations on a footing of absolute quality.

On the basis of the treaty, no naval base or fortification for purposes of war is allowed to be established in the territories specified therein. No nation, including Norway, is allowed to permanently station military personnel or equipment on Spitsbergen. To this day, it is under Norwegian administration and legislation and Norway's coast guards regularly patrol its waters to protect Norwegian sovereignty.

In the 1990s, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States established the Arctic Council through the Ottawa Declaration of Sept. 19, 1996. Its purpose is to protect the environment of the Arctic and to foster the welfare of its Indigenous People and residents within the context of preserving the Arctic environment.

With the war in Ukraine, however, the members of the Arctic Council have boycotted Russia citing that the latter poses "grave impediments to international cooperation, including in the Arctic."

Norway has shut down its borders and ports to Russian trucks and ships, but not to Russia's fishing vessels. Russia claims that Norway has breached the Svalbard Treaty. As the West and Russia are slowly flexing military muscles in the Arctic, there are fears that the diplomatic row between Russia and Norway over the ban on Russian trucks and ships might soon escalate to a more belligerent situation. Should NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) boots step on Ukrainian soil, the Svalbard archipelago and the Arctic Ocean, which serves as a water boundary to the United States, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia, will surely become zones of fevered conflict.

The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, for the price of $7.2 million. Only 2.4 miles in the Bering Strait separates these two world powers, at Little Diomede Island, which is part of Alaska, the 49th State of the USA and Big Diomede Island of the Russian Federation where only 83 people live.

Scientists have been talking about climate change and ice melt. They say that in the year 2040, the Arctic may be ice free. Besides sea rise, the threat of war will then loom large in the Arctic because of the race for resources and the opening of shipping lanes and sea routes which up to now are not allocated to any State. When Arctic ice melts and the need for icebreakers disappears, the Arctic will duplicate the South China Sea problem on steroids.

When that happens, Santa has to change residence to the opposite side of the North Pole, he must go South — to Antarctica, away from the warring States, as far as his reindeers can take him.

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