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The Jan Mayen Dispute, 24. jan. 2013

Hér að neðan má finna erindi um Jan Mayen-deiluna milli Íslands og Noregs sem komst í hámæli árin 1979-1981. Glærur sem stuðst var við má skoða hér. Erindið var flutt á ráðstefnu Arctic Frontiers verkefnisins, í Tromsö 24. jan. 2013. Erindið er aðeins stutt yfirlit en í vinnslu er ítarlegri rannsókn á þessari merku deilu sem leystist farsællega, þótt auðvitað megi deila um efni samkomulagsins - og fúlt yrði ef sú olía sem kannski aflast verður nær öll Norðmanna megin. Tíminn leiðir það í ljós. 


The Jan Mayen dispute between Iceland and Norway, 1979-1981.

A study in successful diplomacy?

Arctic Frontiers, Tromsø 24 January 2013,


In April 1980, Icelandic and Norwegian delegations met in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. Led by the countries’ foreign ministers, the Icelandic Ólafur Jóhannesson and Knut Frydenlund from Norway, the aim was to reach an agreement on fishing rights and continental shelf resources around the island of Jan Mayen.

The need for a settlement was clear. For two years, the opposing sides had quarrelled about capelin catches around Jan Mayen. Geological research also indicated that oil could be found on the seabed below. Who was to enjoy these resources? How were they to be divided? The issue created heated emotions in Iceland and in the Norwegian camp, Frydenlund and some officials worried that resistance to Icelandic claims might even decrease Iceland’s commitment to NATO membership and the US military presence on the island, a perennial worry in Oslo during the Cold War.[1]

Such was the scene when the negotiations began in Reykjavík. Ostensibly, Jóhannesson’s opening remarks did not give ground to optimism. Citing official statements from the late 1920s, he pointed out that Iceland had not formally recognized the incorporation of Jan Mayen into the Norwegian Kingdom in 1929. Furthermore, he indicated that historically, the island had much stronger ties with Iceland than Norway.[2]

In Iceland, it did not seem unnatural to question Norwegian sovereignty.  “Jan Mayen er íslenzk“ ‒ “Jan Mayen is Icelandic“, was a remark that had repeatedly been voiced during the dispute.[3] Still, in his opening remarks Jóhannesson was primarily playing to the gallery as Frydenlund and the Norwegian delegation had in fact anticipated.[4] The Icelandic government was not going to contest sovereignty over Jan Mayen. By mentioning the historical record, however, a bargaining position was constructed. Besides, Icelandic acceptance of Norwegian sovereignty was limited to the island of Jan Mayen itself. Once foreign minister Jóhannesson had dutifully covered the historical background, he advanced three main negotiating points.

First, Iceland’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone should not be moderated, even though Jan Mayen lay only 290 miles north of the country and the principle of a median line might conceivably be adhered to. But, as the Icelandic foreign minister stated, Jan Mayen was “small, uninhabited and without a self-sustaining economic life“. In light of the emerging international convention on the law of the sea, such an island could not be on equal footing with Iceland in matters of delimitation and division of resources in their adjacent waters.[5] Thus, law of the sea currents were flowing in Iceland’s favour.

New fishing trends had also encouraged the Icelandic authorities to act. In the mid-1970s, the Icelanders had begun to catch capelin on a large scale. In 1978, Norwegian fishermen joined in, having great success in the waters between Iceland and Jan Mayen and again the following summer. Enraged Icelandic fishermen accused their Norwegian colleagues of ruthless exploitation. It almost goes without saying that they were no angels themselves but this state of affairs led Jóhannesson to advance his second negotiating point at the Reykjavík talks in April 1980: An agreement was needed on the means to determine the total allowable catch of all types of fish in the waters off Jan Mayen outside Iceland’s 200-mile limit, with at least half of the capelin there coming to the Icelandic side.

Finally, the third point in the Icelandic negotiating position centred on a “just” division of the continental shelf between Iceland and Jan Mayen. In geological terms that “fairness” should be based on the Icelandic claim that the small island rested on a prolongation of Iceland’s continental shelf while a deep divide cut it from Norway. Thus, the Icelandic side contended that the Norwegians could only enjoy a “very limited” seabed area for Jan Mayen.[6]

In one sense the Norwegian side could be pleased. The Icelandic authorities were not advancing the idea of joint rule and utilization around Jan Mayen that they had mooted for a year or so.[7] For Norway, such a scenario was out of the question. Sovereignty was not something to be shared. Rather, it was to be protected Previously, Norwegian officials had reinforced the claim to the  island by pointing to the continuous presence of meteorologists and a small military contingent there, as well as the now well-established act of incorporation in the 1920s. In Reykjavík, however, the Norwegian delegation did not even entertain their hosts by engaging in a debate about historical claims to Jan Mayen.  Neither were they ready to accept Icelandic ideas on fisheries, having in mind that Norwegian fishermen – who of course refuted all allegations of overfishing – would never accept a solution on the lines proposed. Similarly, while the Norwegian side did not accept the Icelandic definition of the continental shelf factor, they knew where the likelihood of striking oil was greatest. It might therefore be best for Norway, as officials in the foreign ministry suggested, to offer Iceland a share in the “worthless” part of the seabed.[8]

An agreement was not reached in Reykjavík but the two parties decided to hold a second round of negotiations in Oslo. That time a solution was found. On 28 May 1980, Iceland and Norway signed a treaty on Jan Mayen. In short, the Icelanders mostly got what they wanted in fisheries terms; an acceptance of the full 200-mile limit north of Iceland, a joint commitment to set quotas on the total allowable catch of capelin around Jan Mayen and an equal share in catches there. In turn, the Icelanders accepted the establishment of a Norwegian fishery zone in those waters, which in any case benefited them since it prevented uncontrolled fishing by other nations. With regard to the continental shelf, a three-man Conciliation Commission was given the task of recommending a dividing line between Iceland and Jan Mayen.

In Norway, the relevant fishing interest groups protested the agreement.[9] Privately, Foreign Minister Frydenlund admitted that strategic concerns had played a role in the government’s reasoning since the opponents of NATO in Iceland would have benefitted from Norwegian intransigence on fish. Arguably, this was the last time that Icelandic authorities could wield the strategic location of the country to strengthen their hand in international disputes. Norway’s position had also been influenced by Barents Sea considerations, too detailed to delve into here but involving the Soviet Union. Finally, Frydenlund was certain that according to the emerging law of the sea criteria, the Norwegians could count themselves lucky to have received such a large share of the disputed are as now seemed likely.[10] It is tempting to maintain, therefore, that the Norwegians had sacrificed a few contemporary capelin for potential oil reserves. Following from that, the question arises whether the Icelanders could and should have secured a better outcome.

In fact, the agreement received a mixed blessing in Iceland. At the start of 1980, a new centre-left coalition had come to power and after the talks in Oslo one of its parties, the Socialist People’s Alliance, voiced utter displeasure with the result. And while the fishing industry agreed that an agreement was preferable to “chaos”, they complained that the Norwegian capelin share was too generous. Then again, they probably would have grumbled even if the solution had involved as little as one, two or three capelin. Protesting international concessions and compromises is the innate function of local fishing interests in the North Atlantic.

Still, the Jan Mayen dispute can conceivably be seen as a study in successful diplomacy. The authorities in Oslo and Reykjavík could claim that they reached a satisfactory solution although on both sides fishermen voiced their displeasure. But equal unhappiness can also be the sign of success in international negotiation.

As for the continental shelf, three law of the sea veterans formed the proposed Conciliation Committee, the Icelandic Hans G. Andersen, the Norwegian Jens Evensen and Elliott Richardson from the United States. Their recommendations were accepted in both Oslo and Reykjavík. In the main, the continental shelf was divided along the line between Iceland’s exclusive economic zone. An area of some 45 thousand square kilometres in size, where oil could most likely be found, was also demarcated. About one quarter of that area was inside Iceland’s part of the seabed. Iceland was to hold one quarter of the natural resources in the Norwegian part and Norway one quarter in the Icelandic part. In addition, the first phase of research in the whole area would be funded by the Norwegian side.

Was it a fair deal? It was not the “worthless”-part suggestion that could once be heard in the Norwegian foreign ministry. Some outside observers have wondered how Iceland got such a good deal. Maybe we will find out sooner rather than later whether both sides will be equally happy, or disappointed. One unfortunate outcome would involve one happy side and the other one disappointed. Time will tell.





[1] See Guðni Jóhannesson, Sympathy and Self-Interest. Norway and the Anglo-Icelandic Cod Wars. Forsvarsstudier 1/2005 (Oslo: Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, 2005). Available online at

[2] National Archives, Iceland [NA]. Oslo 2011 B/206/1. Jóhannesson opening remarks, 14 April 1980. See also Sigurður Líndal (transl. by Odd Didriksen), Island og det gamle Svalbard. Islendingenes kjennskap til Jan Mayen, deres og andres ferder dit fra Island. En forelöpig redegjörelse (Reykjavík: Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 1980).

[3] E.g. „Hvað segja borgararnir um Jan Mayen?“ Alþýðublaðið 16 August 1979, Pétur Guðjónsson, „Jan Mayen er íslenzk“, Dagblaðið 1, 2 and 3 Oct. 1979, and Jónas Kristjánsson, „Jan Mayen er íslenzk“, Dagblaðið 4 March 1980 (leading article).

[4] Foreign Ministry Archives, Oslo [FMA]. Law of the sea and fishing limits committee minutes, 10 April 1980.

[5] NA. Oslo 2011 B/206/1. Jóhannesson opening remarks, 14 April 1980.

[6]NA. Oslo 2011 B/206/1. Jóhannesson opening remarks, 14 April 1980. See also NA. FRN 1989 BR/20. Hans G. Andersen, “Jan Mayen”, minute 27 July 1979.

[7] FMA. “Drøftelsene med Island om fiskeriene i områdene ved Jan Mayen”, foreign ministry minute 2 July 1979.

NA. Oslo 2011 B/205/1. Icelandic foreign ministry to Icelandic embassy, Oslo, 9 August 1979.

[8] FMA. “Forhandlingene med Island om Jan Mayen-problemene. Spørsmålet om deling av kontinentalsokkelen”, foreign ministry minute 26 April 1980.

[9] “Fullt av fiskarar i Stortinget fredag“, Sunnmørsposten 5 June 1980.

[10] FMA. “Redegjørelse for Stortingets utvidede utenrikskomité om forhandlingene med Island om Jan Mayen-problemene”, foreign ministry minute, 13 May 1980.

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