Demilitarization as a Constructive Tool for Co-operation and Peace: the Example of the Åland Islands
By Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark
In 2017 Finland is celebrating its centennial. This year, it marked an even older anniversary: on 30 March 2016, it was 160 years since the demilitarization of the Åland Islands, an archipelago of more than six and a half thousand islands scattered in the middle of the Baltic Sea between what is today mainland Finland and Sweden. They are inhabited by almost 29,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Swedish speakers.
The demilitarization of the Åland Islands was established by a tripartite convention between Great Britain, France and Russia and confirmed in the 1856 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Crimean War. To be sure, it was hardly a naïve love of peace that motivated the agreement, nor was there at the time any particular concern for the wellbeing of the people who populated the islands. The logic of the demilitarization was, and still is, that of ensuring that this small piece of territory would not be fortified and therefore would be less attractive militarily and less dangerous than it would otherwise be. This was of particular concern for neighbouring Sweden, one of the driving forces behind the agreement, even though Sweden chose to remain outside the settlement of 1856 for various reasons.
An early confidence-building measure
With the Convention on the Demilitarization of the Åland Islands, the superpowers of the time wanted to provide a pragmatic solution to the challenge of strengthening, as it was put in the French original text, “les bienfaits de la paix générale” – “the benefits of general peace”. Rather than competing for military presence in and territorial control of this controversial territory, the states parties accepted to keep away from it and create a platform for communication about matters that concerned it. One could call it an early confidence-building measure.
The demilitarization agreement can be seen as a forerunner to the collective security system that was established through the Covenant of the League of Nations in 1920, with the aim of limiting the use of force in interstate relations and creating new avenues for addressing conflicts and threats to peace. The idea of collective dispute settlement was at the core of the League of Nations system, but, as we all know, it collapsed, or rather took time out (in part as a result of the unwillingness of the superpowers of that time to follow the rules they had themselves enacted) before being succeeded by the United Nations and the United Nations Charter in 1945.
Meanwhile, the Convention on the Demilitarization of the Åland Islands was strengthened through the adoption in 1921 of the Convention on the Non-Fortification and Neutralization of the Åland Islands. Among the ten original signatories was Finland, which had been recognized by then as an independent state and become a member of the League of Nations. Finland had already been granted territorial sovereignty over the islands through a dispute settlement by the League of Nations earlier that same year. The internationally entrenched binding rules on neutralization for the islands are distinct from the policy of neutrality and non-alliance of Finland. The neutralization rules added to the previous international legal commitments the prohibition of using “directly or indirectly” the Åland Islands “for any purpose connected with military operations” in times of war.
A long tradition
In fact, demilitarization was nothing new in the late 19th century. The first documented examples date back to the early Middle Ages and rules requiring the demolition of fortifications and prohibiting their reconstruction were found regularly in peace treaties concluded in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. An early example was the 1559 Treaty of Château Cambrésis (between France and Spain), which included a prohibition of fortifications in the area of Thérouanne. In 1768, Denmark ceded several islands in the mouth of the river Elbe to Hamburg and at the same time it was provided that no military installations were to be built on these islands. A large number of demilitarization arrangements were included in the treaties ending the First World War, e.g. on the Saar Region, the Free City of Danzig, Spitsbergen/Svalbard and islands in the Mediterranean. This pattern continued well into the period following the Second World War, for instance with regard to the Dodecanese Islands, Pelagosa and the Free Territory of Trieste.
A special case, in terms of the level of institutionalization of its internationalized management is that of Antarctica. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty stipulates that “in the interest of all mankind…Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. A more recent, though inconclusive, effort towards demilitarization was the 1999 plan by the former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan for Cyprus. One element of the plan was the demilitarization of the island.
Demilitarization and neutralization can be understood as limitations to territorial sovereignty, but they function, simultaneously, as confirmations of the idea of territorial sovereignty and control of territory. In fact, the Åland Islands regime is premised upon clear territorial sovereignty and thus the ability and legal right as well as obligation – of Finland in this case – to repel attacks and imminent threats against the zone, in order to safeguard its demilitarized and neutral status.
However, this same solution is also an exception and a provocation to our thinking about the ways in which such territorial sovereignty can be exercised. The rules of demilitarization and neutralization entail a legally binding promise of giving priority to diplomatic means of communication and negotiation, before means of military power, even though power relations are acknowledged. The demilitarization is managed primarily by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The system requires transparency and communication on alleged controversies, something which became even clearer in the 1940 bilateral treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union. Both Sweden and the Russian Federation have consulates on Åland. The Governor of the Åland Islands heads the state administration on the islands, attends to state security matters and functions as a link between the Republic of Finland and the regional government and parliament of the self-government of Åland. The Governor, who is appointed by the President of the Republic of Finland with the agreement of the Speaker of the Åland parliament, also maintains regular contact with the consulates.
Demilitarization is a small step towards disarmament. It is a recognition of the fact that the arms races that took place in many countries prior to both 1914 and 1939 were strong contributing factors to the outbreak of the devastating World Wars. The financial frustrations of these pre-war periods are absent today. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2015 Human Development Report, most countries in the OSCE region belong to the top strata of countries with a very high or high human development level. Still, we are witnessing, in Europe and beyond, a slow but steady escalation of aggressive rhetoric and military expenditures and activities, alongside an expanding use of force internationally. It is seldom easy or fruitful to try to establish who was first to start a conflict and who should take the largest blame in the midst of a difficult situation.
Under such conditions we need to strengthen tools and strategies of communication and co-operation wherever we can and find new ways of promoting disarmament. Demilitarization is one of them. It is a pragmatic and contextual solution which requires cautious management by all parties concerned and a commitment to the restriction of the use of force. Could it be useful in new situations? What about the Arctic, for instance? Could a different but similar solution be envisaged here, relying on the old idea that the Arctic areas should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes?
Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark is Associate Professor of International Law at the Åland Islands Peace Institute. Currently she heads the research project “Demilitarization in an increasingly militarized world. International perspectives in a multilevel regulatory framework – the case of the Åland Islands”. Read more on the project here: www.peace.ax/en/research/research-projects .