Canada assumes the chair of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2013, to be followed in 2015 by the United States. What should Canada seek to achieve during its two-year chairmanship and what are the chances of success in a region newly accessible to non-Arctic interests as a result of climate change melting sea ice? Might Canada and the United States promote a four-year North American vision, strategy and program of action that responds to growing international interest in the region’s oil, gas and minerals, and that reflects the region’s strategic location between industrial areas in Asia, North America and Europe?

The Canadian government has much resting on the answers to these questions; the council was established in 1996 largely as a result of Canadian diplomacy, and our 2009 Northern Strategy and 2010 Arctic Foreign Policy promote cooperation in the region, including modest strengthening of the council. To answer the questions above, Canada should focus not only on potential projects and/or programs that reflect our national interests, although these are important. As well, we should commit to and persuade our circumpolar neighbours to reform and significantly strengthen the Arctic Council, and mandate it to engage non-Arctic states and others with growing interests in the region. As recently suggested by Franklyn Griffiths, an early proponent of international cooperation in the circumpolar world, the task ahead for the Arctic states is to

adopt a multilateral and region-wide approach to Arctic affairs. Besides seizing opportunities as they arise, the ice states would orchestrate joint actions so as to shape the region’s development according to a common strategic design. They would act not so much on what might seem doable….but on what is needed to create and maintain a region that is maximally consistent with national purposes and the long-view.

As a foreign policy goal to be pursued during its chairmanship, Canada should seek agreement among the Arctic states to reform the Arctic Council, enabling it to conduct the Arctic orchestra. Ministers of foreign affairs of the Arctic states did agree in 2009 to strengthen their cooperation in the Arctic Council and elaborated upon this commitment at their spring 2011 meeting. Reforms approved to date will improve the council’s internal administration, and this is a step in the right direction, but they won’t define the music to be played by the Arctic states singly or collectively, nor the council’s ability to conduct the Arctic orchestra or, even more important, ensure the orchestra plays to a global audience. But such is needed if the council is to ensure international cooperation remains the norm in the region, and to guarantee that development in this ecologically fragile portion of the world is in line with the most stringent and rigorously implemented environmental and social standards.

The Arctic Council was established as a “high-level forum” to promote “co-operation, co-ordination and interaction” among and between the Arctic states with the involvement of the region’s indigenous communities. Detailed rules of procedure were approved in 1998 to ensure only ministers could authorize projects and to embed a consensus rule of decision-making. Six Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ organizations representing Aleut, Athabaskans, Inuit, Gwich’in, Sami and Russian indigenous peoples are permanent participants to the council — a status midway between observer and member — and sit at the same table as ministers of foreign affairs, intervening according to common procedural rules. Accredited observers include six European states, nine intergovernmental organizations and 11 nongovernmental organizations. China, Japan, South Korea, Italy, the European Commission and, most recently, Singapore have applied for observer status. Observer applications by India and Brazil are rumoured to be in preparation.

The council has six working groups, four of which were originally set up in the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) adopted by the Arctic states in 1991. Broadly, the council addresses sustainable development and environmental protection but is barred from considering military and security issues — a condition upon which the United States insisted if it was to become a member.

Ministers meet every two years, senior Arctic officials (SAOs) meet every six months and working groups meet on an as-needed basis. The council relies upon voluntary financial contributions and the willingness of one or more states to “lead” projects. It has been accurately characterized as a decision-shaping rather than decision-making body.

The council is a success story although few inside or outside the Arctic know much about it. Be that as it may, the council’s working groups have completed technical assessments of the highest quality on a very wide range of topics.

The council is a success story although few inside or outside the Arctic know much about it. Be that as it may, the council’s working groups have completed technical assessments of the highest quality on a very wide range of topics. Some, particularly those on climate change, contaminants and marine shipping, have visibly informed international as well as national policies. The global Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), including PCBs and DDT, opened for signature in Stockholm in 2001 and singles out the Arctic and its indigenous communities largely as a result of the council’s 1998 report on Arctic contaminants. The council’s 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) prompted all Arctic states to sign a policy statement acknowledging the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. It also prompted a “statement of concern” by the council’s member and observer states released at the 2005 Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal. Most recently, the council’s 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment continues to stimulate efforts by the International Maritime Organization to make mandatory its voluntary guidelines for ships operating in polar waters. Assessments currently underway address trends in Arctic biodiversity, the state of national and international law and policy in the Arctic Ocean, and human resilience in the face of climate change, now acknowledged as a key driver of social and cultural as well as environmental change in the region.

Notwithstanding acknowledged successes and a broad agenda of considerable relevance to those who live in the region as well as internationally, the council has been criticized as a “soft” rather than “hard” law arrangement, a “talking shop” with advisory authority rather than regulatory powers and a forum with a limited ability to translate assessments and data into action and policy. The council’s two-year rotating chairmanship among the member states certainly raises issues of lack of continuity and loss of corporate memory, and the project focus of the working groups, which sometimes guard their turf rather jealously, leads the council occasionally to approach issues tactically and incrementally rather than strategically and for the long term. The wide scope of the working groups has led to overlap between some projects. Voluntary financing of projects and secretariat support for working groups has resulted in some being able to assume greater workloads than others.

Norway, for example, has for many years generously supported the working group that addresses environmental contaminants. On the other hand, lack of funding for the working group that deals with biodiversity conservation prevented it for more than two years from initiating an Arctic biodiversity assessment even though this project had been formally approved by ministers. The working group on emergency prevention, preparedness and response has never enjoyed secretariat support, and lack of financing has constrained the ability of the permanent participants to attend, let alone contribute, to the council.

Reflecting a lack of consensus among the member states, decisions on applications for observer status were “deferred” in 2009 although, quite correctly, this was reported in the media as a euphemism for “rejection,” particularly of the application by the European Commission. Some permanent participants feel their voices and influence could be diluted in a growing sea of observers. New criteria to evaluate applicant observers were approved in 2011, and a task force is currently considering concomitant changes to the rules of procedure.

Ministers are scheduled in 2013 to decide whom to accredit as observers. Particularly problematic to some, including Canada, is the application by the European Commission. The 2009 European Union ban on placing seal products on the European market was viewed by Canada, and certainly Inuit who mounted legal action in the European General Court to overturn this decision, as evidence that the European Commission might not play a positive role in the council. Canada has mounted a World Trade Organization challenge to this decision. The European Union has gained legal competence in numerous functional areas of importance in the Arctic, but as six European states already enjoy observer status in the council, questions continue to be raised about potential overrepresentation of European interests in this forum should the European Commission be admitted.

The 2009 European Union ban on placing seal products on the European market was viewed by Canada, and certainly Inuit who mounted legal action in the European General Court to overturn this decision, as evidence that the European Commission might not play a positive role in the council. Canada has mounted a World Trade Organization challenge to this decision.

In response to criticisms of the council’s weaknesses and in order to deal more authoritatively with existing and would-be observers, the May 2011 ministerial declaration committed to “strengthen” the council by establishing a secretariat of up to 10 people in Tromso, northern Norway, and to develop a strategic communications plan. These changes will likely bolster the chair of the SAOs and ensure that he/she is the “international face” of the council between meetings of ministers. The 2009 ministerial declaration authorized deputy ministers of foreign affairs to convene in years when ministers were not meeting, to reinforce the council’s priorities and direction. Informal closed sessions of SAOs and leaders of the permanent participants are now held immediately before formal open meetings of the council, allowing trial balloons to be floated in a confidential and politically safe environment. The working group chairs now meet periodically to coordinate their activities and to discuss potential projects before proposal are taken forward to SAOs and ministers.

While necessary and helpful, these internal measures to strengthen the council are insufficient if it is to extend its reach and expand its influence within the Arctic and globally. To achieve these strategic objectives, the council needs to face outward to the world and inform and influence international institutions and non-Arctic states with growing Arctic interests. What might be the key elements of further reform if it is to conduct the Arctic orchestra?

First and foremost, the council should be grounded in a new and expansive declaration that reflects the quite extraordinary political, environmental and social changes in the region in the last two decades. This new declaration should situate Arctic states, in cooperation with northerners and, in particular, the region’s indigenous peoples, to address challenges that result from rising powers asserting interests in the region. To do this, the declaration should identify long-term strategic priorities and goals that the member states operating individually and through the council commit to work toward.

In 2003 and again in 2008, the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted resolutions that effectively characterize the Arctic as the globe’s environmental barometer. As a result of their subsistence-based economies and close relationship to the natural world, Arctic indigenous peoples view themselves as the mercury in that barometer. A new Arctic Council declaration might usefully reflect this characterization and commit to increased Arctic-wide monitoring enabling non-Arctic as well as Arctic interests to read the barometer.

The new declaration should speak directly and clearly to the role in the council of state and non-state observers. How this issue is addressed will reveal much about the ability of the council to inform and influence non-Arctic states with Arctic interests. Some Arctic states are nervous that admission of powerful non-Arctic states as observers may challenge their freedom of action in the region. If this concern holds sway, the number of observers will likely be restricted and their role in the council, already quite marginal, will be firmly circumscribed. Key problems facing the Arctic, including climate change and long-range transport to the region of POPs, reflect emissions to the environment in mid rather than high latitudes. Using the council to engage China, the European Union and others responsible for these emissions may well sensitize them to the Arctic dimension of these global issues, reinforce the concept of the Arctic-as-global-barometer and promote negotiation and implementation of global agreements needed to protect the Arctic environment and the peoples who live in the region.

The new declaration should welcome and engage non-Arctic states and interests, at the same time making it clear just what is expected of them in the council’s working groups and activities. The existing declaration enables the admission of states and interests as observers that the council “determines can contribute to its work.” This principle should be continued in the new declaration and liberally applied.

Eight states are sovereign in the Arctic but only five girdle the Arctic Ocean, enabling them through the Law of the Sea to acquire extended continental shelf rights in this ocean beyond their Exclusive Economic Zones (alone among the littoral states, the US has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). New responsibilities accompany additional rights. The littoral states might, through a new Arctic Council declaration, commit to exercise their sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean in ways that reflect the importance of the region to the globe. They might, for example, propose a fisheries conservation regime in the “doughnut hole” — that portion of the high Arctic Ocean that will remain outside national jurisdiction following definition of extended continental shelf rights. Indeed, a 2008 joint resolution of Congress called for the United States to “take necessary steps with other Arctic nations to negotiate an agreement or agreements for managing migratory, transboundary and straddling fish stocks in the Arctic Ocean and establishing a new international fisheries management organization or organizations for the region.” This would be a globally important initiative that all eight Arctic states and observers to the council could pursue jointly — an orchestra of considerable size and political weight — that would visibly illustrate the commitment of the five littoral states to “take care of business” in their backyard.

In light of the heightened geopolitical importance of the Arctic and its ecological fragility and vulnerability, the new declaration might be signed by heads of the eight Arctic governments rather than ministers of foreign affairs. It would also be appropriate for the political leaders of the permanent participants to formally witness the new declaration, reinforcing the partnership in the council between Arctic indigenous peoples and Arctic states. Such had been the intent, vetoed by the United States, for the 1996 declaration that established the Arctic Council.

Although it has led to disparate capabilities among the working groups, voluntary financing has generally served the council well but won’t suffice in the future if the council is to fully reflect an expanded mandate, carry out its still evolving agenda, implement an expansive communication and outreach program, now being developed, and generally be more strategic in outlook and operation. A shared financing arrangement involving all Arctic states has been adopted for the council’s soon-to-be-established secretariat. Having breached the principle of voluntary financing, the Arctic states should consider a formula financing arrangement to underpin all working groups.

Arctic indigenous peoples have contributed much to the council, including adding to its moral standing. The ACIA, for example, included case illustrations of the impacts of climate change on wildlife and wildlife habitat revealed through traditional ecological knowledge, freely offered by the permanent participants and eagerly accepted by the more than 300 scientists from 15 countries who conducted the assessment. Their engagement in the council is carried out on a shoestring. With a relatively modest but guaranteed level of funding by the member states, and potentially the observers, they could contribute a great deal more, particularly in the realm of environmental monitoring and reporting, and translating principles of sustainable development into policy and decision-making. With the support of the council and the individual nations in which they reside, Arctic indigenous peoples could also be effective spokespersons internationally, educating non-Arctic states and interests as to the perspectives and realities of the circumpolar world.

Science and international relations have for many years been hand in glove in the Arctic. Even in the midst of the Cold War, scientists from the Soviet Union and the West and, in particular, Canada tended the guttering flame of international cooperation exemplified in the International Arctic Science Committee established in 1990 and eventually embedded in the AEPS and Arctic Council. Scientists from more than 60 countries participated in the recently concluded International Polar Year, including China and South Korea, who are investing heavily in icebreakers as platforms upon which to mount new and expand existing Arctic science programs. The Arctic Council should acknowledge and promote the central role of science in the further development of the region, seek to remove national barriers to international research in the Arctic detailed, for example, in a recent edition of Nature, and commit member states in collaboration with observers to develop a longterm plan of physical and social science research to underpin future development. More than this, the council should interpret and feed the results of Arctic science into governance institutions in the region and globally.

Whether the council should be able to address military and security issues is an open question. It may be that Arctic states, particularly the United States and Russia, will continue to disallow the Arctic Council from discussing these matters, although it has to be said that the council’s working groups have for some years addressed human security. In light of the growing investment by Arctic states, including Canada, in military infrastructure in their respective Arctic regions, now is the time to ask whether this prohibition continues to serve national security interests. Might it be appropriate to relax this prohibition enabling the council to engage, in particular, China on security co-operation in the region? Should this be the case, the council would effectively reflect Mikhail Gorbachev’s often quoted 1987 “Speech in Murmansk,” which initiated the modern era of international cooperation in the circumpolar world, by proposing the Arctic become a “zone of peace.”

At their 2011 meeting, ministers approved the new legally binding Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, negotiated under the joint chairmanship of the United States and Russia, fulfilling a commitment made by the council in 2009. They also approved negotiation, now underway and jointly chaired by Norway, Russia and the United States, of an agreement on preparedness and response to marine oil pollution. The former reflected, in particular, growing concerns for the safety of tour ships — the Arctic is an increasingly popular destination for well-heeled tourists — while the latter is very much in response to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the worrying prospect of oil pollution as a result of increased exploration for hydrocarbons in the Arctic Ocean and its bordering seas.

That the Arctic Council is the forum of choice in which to make political commitments to negotiate functionally specific agreements suggests it has become a recognized component of the political, policy and institutional architecture of the circumpolar world.

That the Arctic Council is the forum of choice in which to make political commitments to negotiate functionally specific agreements suggests it has become a recognized component of the political, policy and institutional architecture of the circumpolar world. The search and rescue agreement and the prospective marine oil pollution agreement are important precedents and suggest that with further strengthening, the council could provide the framework within which to negotiate additional functional agreements to prevent as well as respond to marine oil pollution, to conserve marine fisheries, and other topics, including climate change.

That climate change is a key driver of economic, social and environmental change in the Arctic is now received wisdom, but Canada has acquired an international reputation — deserved or undeserved — as a laggard on climate change mitigation. Be that as it may, science now suggests that emissions of black carbon (soot) and other short-lived climate forcers (SLCF) including methane and tropospheric ozone account for a significant percentage of observable climate change in the Arctic. In 2009, the council established a task force on SLCF and Sweden, the council’s current chair, has proposed that Arctic states negotiate a legally binding agreement to reduce emissions of black carbon. Canada could sponsor and promote such negotiations. The resulting agreement that may well be completed under Canada’s watch could illustrate the council’s commitment to think and act strategically and provide a platform for Arctic states to press for a global agreement on SLCF.

Many eyes now focus on the Arctic. The political and economic context in which the council currently operates is significantly different from that in the late 1980s when it was first proposed by Canada. The task ahead is to plan the evolution of the council to reflect but also to influence this still changing context. To do so will require strategic thinking and action, closer cooperation among and between the Arctic states and a firm commitment to use the council to educate non-Arctic states and interests about this poorly known region — the homeland of ancient indigenous peoples as well as the industrial frontier of an energyand mineral-hungry world. These are not easy tasks, but Canada has an opportunity through its forthcoming chairmanship, and in cooperation with the subsequent chairmanship of the United States, to accelerate the evolution of the Arctic Council, to more deeply embed cooperation among the eight Arctic states and, as Franklyn Griffiths has opined, to create a legacy that binds together sovereignty and stewardship.

Photo: Shutterstock

Terry Fenge is an Ottawa-based consultant specializing in Arctic, Aboriginal and environmental issues. From 1996 to 2006 he was strategic counsel to the international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (now the Inuit Circumpolar Council), and he currently advises the Arctic Athabaskan Council on circumpolar issues.

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