Hans Island is nothing but a barren piece of rock with an area of only one-half square mile. It sits in the north Arctic in the Kennedy Channel between the extreme northern border of Canada on one side and the Danish territory of Greenland on the other.
This island is uninhabited except for the birds that visit it, but it has become a spot for a dispute over who claims it as their own. Canada says it’s theirs while Denmark insists it belongs to them. The result has been a fight over a piece of land that can probably be considered the most peaceful land dispute in the world.
There’s really not much to fight over with Hans Island. It has no resources, but the countries of Denmark and Canada have been “fighting” over it since the 1930s. Because countries can claim land that is within twelve miles of their shores due to international law, Denmark and Canada have each said that the tiny piece of land is theirs since it sits within their boundaries.
The beginning of the dispute can be traced to a 1933 decision by the League of Nations Permanent Court of International Justice. The court decided that the territory belonged to Denmark. But as the League of Nations was later replaced by the United Nations, the decision by the court became largely ignored.
Hans Island was without conflict until 1984 when the Minister of Greenland Affairs from Denmark decided to place a Danish flag on the land accompanied by a bottle of brandy and a message that said, “Welcome to the Danish island.” Since that time, both countries have waged a “war” that is being fought with their own flags, messages, and alcoholic beverages.
When the military of either country visits the island, they dismantle the other country’s flag, but they also leave alcoholic gifts. The Danes now leave a bottle of schnapps and another “Welcome to the Danish Island” sign, while the Canadians leave Canadian Club whiskey and a “Welcome to Canada” sign.
Of course, there was ongoing political wrangling on both sides that amounted to mostly tough-talking statements, but an end to the disagreement, at last, seemed to be in the works. In 2008, a group of international scientists put up a weather station on the rock outcropping, and a proposal was made to share the territory between the two nations. The proposal, however, was ultimately abandoned.
While both countries couldn’t come up with an agreement, they may be pressed into action by another source–Russia. Russia has been increasing its activity in the north Arctic. The increase in Russian ships and military aircraft near the two countries’ borders might push them into a resolution as the countries focus from Hans Island to the northern portions of the Arctic due to Russia’s push for more oil and fishing rights.
The fate of Hans Island remains to be seen. Until then, both sides will be enjoying a good laugh and a hearty drink.