The governments of Canada and Denmark struck a deal to resolve a half-century border dispute known as the “Whisky Wars” on Tuesday during a jovial ceremony that highlighted their commitment to non-violent territorial negotiations.

The two countries have been “fighting” the Whisky Wars since 1971 to settle conflicting claims about Hans Island. According to the World Atlas, the less than a square mile island is in the middle of the Nares Strait, a 22-mile body of water that separates Canada and Greenland, which is an autonomous territory of Denmark. The agreement also ensures the freedom of movement on the island for the Inuit people who hunt and fish in the area.

Ottawa and Copenhagen have agreed to split Hans Island (also known as Tartupaluk in Inuktitut) roughly in half, following a natural ravine that divides the island. All those years of “dispute” were resolved through a simple division of the island, with bottles of whisky and schnapps exchanged.

“We’re setting a precedent. We’re showing to other countries how territorial disputes can be solved,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said after the signing ceremony held in Ottawa, Canada. “It is possible to settle a disagreement, and it’s always the best way to do it through principles and norms that both parties recognize.”

The Whisky Wars

Hans Island is a small sliver of land with no apparent resources. Given the international laws of the sea, countries within twelve nautical miles have the right to claim the territory. During the reign of the League of Nations, the Permanent Court of International Justice granted the island’s ownership to Denmark.

However, the League of Nations crumbled in the 1930s and was soon replaced by the United Nations after the Second World War. Hence, the ruling given by the League of Nations over Hans Island carries no significance.

For a time, the dispute over the island lost traction in the public eye as the Canadian and Danes were caught up with World War II and the Cold War. The issue only reemerged in 1984 when Canada landed troops on the Hans. The soldiers planted the maple leaf Canadian flag and buried a bottle of whisky before heading home.

Hans Island / Hans Ø as seen from the air, looking toward the west with Ellesmere Island in the background. The international border runs approximately from the top left to the lower right, with Denmark on the left and Canada on the right (Toubletap, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons). Source:
Hans Island / Hans Ø as seen from the air, looking toward the west with Ellesmere Island in the background. The international border runs approximately from the top left to the lower right, with Denmark on the left and Canada on the right (ToubletapCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Denmark’s minister of Greenland affairs at the time decided they could not let such provocations stand. Weeks after Canada’s trip, he visited the island to replace the Candian flag with Denmark’s flag. They also left a bottle of the country’s finest schnapps to counter Canada’s whisky. The minister went one step further, leaving a note that read, “Welcome to Danish Island.”

The exchange prompted the start of the not-so-serious “Whisky Wars.” For nearly half a century, dozens of Canadians and Danes would travel to the island to take part in the ritual. Despite legitimate disagreements over the island, the Whisky Wars helped maintain a sense of humor to a usually sensitive issue.

“When Danish military go there, they leave a bottle of schnapps. And when [Canadian] military forces come there, they leave a bottle of Canadian Club and a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Canada,'” Danish Ambassador to the United States Peter Takso Jensen said.

“I think it was the friendliest of all wars,” Joly said. The minister joked ‌if Canada could now join the Eurovision song contest now that the country has a land border with Europe. In true Whisky War fashion, she and Danish Foreign Affairs Minister Jeppe Kofod exchanged bottles of liquor during the ceremony.

A Peaceful Precedent

The resolution of the claims over Hans Island comes in the backdrop of an ongoing war in Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to “de-nazify” Ukraine by invading it on February 24th.

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“It sends a message to the world, including (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, that when there are things you’re disputing over, you have to make the resolution based on international law — not by the law of force, but by the force of law,” said Kofod.

Greenland Prime Minister Múte B. Egede described the successful negotiations as a “stepping stone to truly connect our two countries.”

The deal “represents the peaceful resolution of a territorial dispute, at a time when Western countries are emphasizing the necessity of peaceful resolution to territorial disputes in Ukraine, in Taiwan, in the South China Sea,” political science professor at the University of British Columbia Michael Byers said.

“It’s… a small opportunity to say and do the right thing,” he added, noting that both countries have utilized the island to solicit public sentiment regarding the Arctic.

Joly said it is crucial to keep tensions low in the Arctic, adding that they “cannot fall into the trap of militarizing the Arctic.”