It was in 1984 when Danish Minister for Greenland Tom Høyem grabbed a bottle of schnapps, chartered a helicopter, and headed for a barren, rocky island to start a war. Smack dab in the middle of the Nares Strait, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Arctic and separates Greenland and Canada, the troublesome Hans Island measures a mere 1.3 square km (or about half a square mile). It has no trees, little soil, no known natural resources of any value, and is approximately 123 miles from any inhabited location.
It also contains quite a few bottles of liquor, numerous discarded Danish and Canadian flags, and disregarded signs welcoming visitors to the sovereign land of each country, placed there as a kind of snarky signal to the other that the friendliest border war in history had not yet been settled.
This tiny island was first mapped in the 1920s by Danish explorers, which led the Permanent Court of International Justice (a part of the League of Nations) to declare in 1933 that the island belonged to Denmark. Of course, since the League of Nations was dissolved, its Court of International Justice also proved less permanent than its title implied. It was replaced by the much more creatively named International Court of Justice of the United Nations, which apparently had more important things to not do.
The trouble is that Hans Island falls within the 12 miles of territorial extension from land for both Greenland (Denmark) and Canada, making it tricky to determine which country can claim it.
In the early 1970s, the nations decided to resolve the conflict themselves and came away from negotiations with a maritime border agreement to the north and south of the island, but didn’t manage to sort out the ownership of Hans Island itself. And so, in 1984 what the press dubbed the “Whiskey War” began.
The whole thing reminds me of when my children were small. I have two sons, two-and-a-half years apart in age. They’re teenagers now who are mostly into their own things and more or less get along most of the time. When they don’t, I’m happy to report they now have the sense to give one another some space. That was not always the case.
I remember one day, at least a decade ago, they had such a hard time leaving one another alone that my husband came home from work to find that I had put painters’ tape on the floor and literally divided the house in two. Each had access to a bathroom and his own bedroom and was not allowed, under any circumstances, to cross even a toe into the other’s territory.
By the time their dad walked through the door, the boys were kind of desperate to resume playing together in a more cooperative manner, and I was ready for a bottle of schnapps.
It took Denmark and Canada until 2005 to decide that some kind of painters’ tape solution might work, and another seventeen years after that to hammer out the details. I’m happy to be able to report that just a few weeks ago, they finally did it. On June 13 of this year, foreign ministers of each country exchanged bottles of whiskey and signed an agreement that will divide Hans Island in two.
The solution comes now, according to Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly, as an example to Russian President Vladimir Putin that border disputes don’t have to be violent. Maybe. Or maybe it says that given a decade or four, most arguments can be resolved with a roll of painters’ tape and plenty of schnapps. But I am glad Canada and Denmark finally got it figured out.