Canada and Denmark end decades-long dispute over barren rock in Arctic

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Aerial view of Hans Island

It has been described by some as a “pseudo-confrontation”, by others as a diplomatic afterthought. Now, however, the so-called “whisky war”, which was never really a conflict at all, has finally been resolved with the formal division of a tiny barren Arctic island between Canada and Denmark.

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Sitting in the Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait between the north-western coast of the semi-autonomous Danish territory of Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island, the uninhabited half-mile-square Hans Island has no mineral resources nor much else of interest unless you are a visiting sea bird.

Shaped like a muffin and surrounded by cliffs, it was for centuries an Inuit hunting ground. Crucially, however, it has been at the centre of a long-running border dispute between Canada and Denmark – via Greenland’s home rule government – with Copenhagen claiming that geological evidence points to Hans Island being part of Greenland – a claim rejected by Ottawa.

Aerial view of Hans Island. Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images

Canada and Denmark agreed in 1973 to create a border through Nares Strait, halfway between Greenland and Canada. But they were unable to agree which country would have sovereignty over Hans Island, which lies about 1,100km (680 miles) south of the north pole. In the end, they decided to work out the question of ownership later.

That prompted largely good-natured advocacy between the two parties, including adverts posted on Google promoting their claims, and flag-raising stunts.

The “whisky war” reference came about after Denmark’s minister of Greenland affairs raised a Danish flag on the island in 1984, buried a bottle of Danish schnapps at the base of the flagpole and left a note saying: “Welcome to the Danish island.”

Canadians then planted their own flag and left a bottle of Canadian brandy. Since then, the countries have in turns hoisted their flags and left bottles of various spirits in tit-for-tat moves.

In 2002, Nana Flensburg was part of a Danish military crew that stood on the cliff to perform a flag-raising ceremony. The Politiken newspaper on Tuesday quoted her as saying in her diary that “among the stones in the cairns were lots of bottles, glasses, etc with documents that informed about previous visits to the island”.

At the height of the rivalry both sides took to buying ads on Google to make their claim after Denmark said it would send a letter of protest over a visit by the then Canadian defence minister, Bill Graham, in 2005.

Graham had stated Canada had always owned the island, prompting Denmark to respond: “Hans Island is our island.” Some Canadians in turn proposed a boycott of Danish pastries in an echo of the way some Americans rejected “french fries” when France declined to join coalition forces in Iraq.

Now that friction is being brought to an end with the two countries agreeing to divide the tiny island between them under an agreement to be signed later Tuesday.

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“It sends a clear signal that it is possible to resolve border disputes … in a pragmatic and peaceful way, where the all parties become winners,” said the Danish foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod. He said it was “an important signal now that there is much war and unrest in the world”.

The agreement enters into force after the two countries’ internal procedures have been completed. In Denmark, parliament must first give its consent to the agreement.

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