International SAR Concerns

15 July 2011

CCG icebreaker/research vessel Amundsenn in the Beaufort Sea.

On 12 May 2011, member nations of the Arctic Council – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Sweden – met in Greenland to sign an international treaty on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) in the Arctic. It is the first legally binding instrument negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council. It coordinates life-saving international ­maritime and aeronautical SAR coverage and response among the Arctic States across an area almost the size of Russia.
What, if anything, does this agreement mean for Canada? The Canadian Arctic and the wider Arctic Ocean Basin are seeing increased marine traffic as a result of decreasing sea ice, increased eco-tourism and resource development and more adventurers. Will these international obligations impact the present state of search and rescue in Canada?
Arctic SAR has been the subject of a recent review by the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, whose March 2011 interim report, entitled Sovereignty and Security in Canada’s Arctic, called for a more robust Arctic SAR capability. The report echoes the findings of the earlier work of the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans which released a report in 2009 Rising to the Arctic Challenge: Report on the Canadian Coast Guard.
The concerns that led to the Agreement are real. For instance, are Canadians aware that we have had two cruise ships grounded in Canadian Arctic waters? In 2010, the M/S Clipper Adventurer grounded in the western arctic. Two years earlier, the M/S Explorer, an expedition cruise ship controlled by a Canadian company sank while on an Antarctic cruise. Luckily all onboard survived these marine incidents. With increased arctic activity, especially cruise vessels with large numbers of passengers, incidents will certainly occur. The Arctic Council’s Arctic Shipping Assessment 2009 Report, a 4-year multinational review, had this to say on the current state of Arctic SAR:

Search and rescue infrastructure in the Arctic is limited. The most significant emerging challenge to existing SAR infrastructure arises from the increase in marine tourism and passenger vessels operating in Arctic waters. As large passenger vessels continue to operate more frequently and farther north in the Arctic, the prospect of having to conduct mass rescue operations with limited SAR resources increases. Recent growth in Arctic marine tourism is outpacing infrastructure investment, development and support through the region. (Page 172)

What are Canada’s obligations under international law? One school of thought is that it is ‘business as usual’ and that the Agreement simply codifies an existing state of affairs for Canada’s National SAR program. However, it can be strongly argued that the Agreement imposes additional obligations on Canada. This international treaty came together because investigations by the Arctic Council show a clear need for action. This agreement, announced in 2009, was drafted and signed in under two years – which is meteor speed in international relations – and was the first time the Arctic Council has produced a binding agreement.

The implementation of this Arctic search and rescue agreement into Canadian SAR programs presents a good opportunity to look at Arctic SAR with fresh eyes.
The National SAR Secretariat (NSS), which was set up after the Ocean Ranger inquiry in 1982, reports to the Minister of National Defence. The NSS is a natural choice to undertake this analysis and review. It will require a broad approach to look holistically all elements of Arctic SAR, including the policy and operational levels. A review of specific requirements of the Agreement would be an important first step. Dialogue and discussion on these issues will benefit Canada in the longer term and build on the ongoing work on the Northern SAR strategy that the NSS has been examining.
The Arctic Council’s Arctic Shipping Assessment recommends a binding international agreement, and it has been suggested that a follow-on agreement, with pollution countermeasures for the Arctic Ocean Basin be forthcoming. These elements of international law dictate a requirement for Canada to “make friends” early. At a June conference in Washington, DC on Arctic concerns, both the Commandant of the US Coast Guard, Admiral Papp, and the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Roughhead stated that the United States lacked capability in the Arctic at present. For example, the UCSG only has one research icebreaker available and could not effectively respond to a cruise ship in distress. This presents a unique opportunity for Canada to play a leadership role and assist our NORAD partner and NATO ally. Will we seize it?
We need to look at the entire Arctic search and rescue regime with fresh eyes. In a recent commentary in the Canadian Military Journal, entitled “Rescuing Search And Rescue” Professor Martin Shadwick of York University called for an overall review of the Canadian SAR system and called for levels of service to be defined, and alternative service delivery explored.
Findings from the 2009 Arctic Council’s Shipping Assessment on SAR included the following:

Emergency response capacity for saving lives and pollution mitigation is highly dependent on the nation’s ability to project human and physical resources over vast geographical distances in various seasonal and climatic circumstances. The current lack of infrastructure in all but a limited number of areas, coupled with the vastness and harsh environment, makes carrying out her response significantly more difficult in the Arctic. Without further investment in development and infrastructure, only a targeted fraction of the potential risk scenarios can be addressed. (Page 187)

Given the clear statements made in the report, the Arctic Council and the Agreement contemplates increased Arctic SAR capability especially as it relates to cruise ships. Article 3 requires an “adequate and effective SAR capability.” Canada cannot hide as a nation behind a business as usual scenario given the clear words of the Agreement and the groundwork that led to the consensus and quick signing of this international treaty.
Additionally, under Article 98 of the Law of the Sea Convention, which Canada has ratified, there is a positive obligation on the coastal state to provide SAR:

Article 98(2). Every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and where circumstances so require by way of mutual regional arrangements co-operate with neighboring States for that purpose.

The Agreement specifically holds that it is made in accordance with the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue and 1944 Convention on Civil Aviation which are well established and widely recognized sources of international law on search and rescue. It creates an additional regime for the Arctic based upon existing norms. The Agreement sets out that each member state is given a particular search and rescue area for which it is responsible, and safe and effective measures must be taken. The overall goal is to coordinate international SAR coverage and response in the Arctic.
It is beyond the scope of this article to undertake a detailed analysis of the Agreement but the relevant section to this discussion states:

Article 9(3). The party shall promote mutual search and rescue cooperation by giving due consideration for collaborative efforts including, but not limited to:
…(i). supporting and implementing joint research and development initiatives aimed, inter alia, at reducing search times, improving rescue effectiveness and minimum minimizing risk to the search and rescue personnel.
Article 10. the party shall meet on a regular basis in order to consider and resolve issues regarding practical cooperation

Agreements are easy to sign – the real effort begins with their implementation. As a nation, Canada needs to match its words with action – we need to meet the spirit of the Agreement. This will take effort and money, and a coming together of the SAR sector – and the Northern community must be involved at all levels. Our Canadian Rangers, as Colonel Leblanc wrote in the last issue of FrontLine, are a resource that can better utilized and must serve as a solid footing on which all Arctic SAR is based.
The Arctic is unique in that, at any one time, we have more people in flying over the Canadian Arctic than we have people residing in the region. We have to change our way of thinking when it comes to developing a robust SAR capability in the North. Professor Shadwick has stated in the article referenced earlier that reviewing Canadian SAR programs need to be examined in a holistic way. Most importantly, we need to look at the Arctic as a special case. For example, Canada’s SAR Region now extends to the North Pole and we have agreed at the international level to respond. We need to have the capability to do just that. Options such as the increased utilization of the Canadian Rangers, the use of search radar and electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) sensors, equipment collaboration, joint training exercises included in an overall robust risk management approach to the regulation of Arctic shipping and supported by the Arctic Council as the way forward. This will require various marine, air and space based platforms. These words were echoed by the recent Senate report Sovereignty and Security in Canada’s Arctic:
Article 9 provides an excellent opportunity for Canada to develop an international Arctic SAR Center that could be based on the NATO centers of excellence concept and become a leading showcase for thought leadership, research and training, which the Agreement seeks to create. Such a centre would also bring together Canadian industrial interests and open the door for new markets.
There is a cluster of technical, research and operational expertise in Halifax and St. Johns. The Arctic SAR Centre could be potentially collocated there with an arctic presence. The large airbase at 5 Wing Goose Bay, in Labrador, provides an excellent venue for operational training with state of the art existing facilities, hangars and is well known to the Member states of the Arctic Council many of whom who are NATO members who have made use of the low level fighter training at 5 Wing in the past.
It is important to realize that the issues around SAR are often directly connected to oil spill response and pollution counter-measures, which is the next issue to be dealt with by the Arctic Council. We need new ways of thinking and looking at these interconnected problems at the domestic and international level.
Canada will be hosting the first international Arctic SAR tabletop exercise in fall 2011 – this may be a good time to reflect the importance of cooperation and collaboration in this region. When taking an Arctic SAR leadership role, we need to think broadly, bring all levels of government into the equation. We also need to look at alternative service delivery, bring Canadian commercial interests, and academic and research community and most importantly Northerners and the First Canadians into the discussion to have safer and stronger Arctic. We now have an international obligation to do so.
If Canada is to become an Arctic superpower, as former Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon suggested on 1 July 2009, we need to bring all the parties together including the First Canadians – the Inuit. Northerners must be an integral component of Canada’s future Arctic SAR response. Canada must be guided by our international legal obligations and incorporate this into our domestic programs which will lead to a stable Arctic.
There are many friends of the Arctic and Canada needs to build on those relationships with an overarching IASAR strategy which can be in an integral part of Canada’s Northern Strategy to ensure that Canada meets its international obligations and these obligations are given the same consideration as Canada’s SAR professionals and volunteers give to rescues. The Agreement will allow us to build on these long-standing relationships and lead to a stable geopolitical situation through cooperation with all the Arctic nations. This is an opportunity for Canada to exert its Arctic leadership and showcase our SAR expertise. Canada does not have time to waste; becoming an Arctic superpower will require many friends.

Joe Spears of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group has been involved in various National marine programs, Arctic SAR and was a contributor to the Arctic Council’s Arctic Shipping Assessment. He can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com
© FrontLine Defence 2011