The Future of the Arctic Council

18 May 2012

In the next few weeks the world will be looking south to Rio+20. Carl Bildt, Sweden's Foreign Minister, reminds us that it needs to look north as well.

Bildt spoke on "Arctic Challenges and the Future Perspectives of the Arctic Council" Thursday night at Carleton University in Ottawa. Sweden currently chairs the eight-nation political forum. 1 Founded in 1996 the Arctic Council also includes six Indigenous Peoples' organizations 2 and has traditionally focused on scientific assessments of pollution, climate change and other environmental challenges. Over the years it has brought a "human dimension" into its work as it has tried to grapple with the geopolitical implications of the rapid change taking place in the Arctic.

The Council has been criticized for being too rigid, too exclusive and incapable of adapting to the new reality of a rapidly melting Arctic. It’s irrelevant, say its harshest critics.

The fact that the council is a political creation with no independent budget and has no legal identity has not helped. Neither has the fact that much of the Arctic falls within the jurisdiction of the countries that surround the Arctic Ocean. There has been fierce resistance within the council to admitting new observers (there are currently 26 states, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs that have positions) including the European Union and, especially, China.

Bildt offered a view from the top, so to speak. Sweden has one year left in its mandate before the rotating chairmanship moves back to Canada a year from now. It's a good time to extend a diplomatic hand to Canada, which has not said what it plans to do during its mandate. The Foreign Minister had four main points he said are necessary for the future growth and stability of the council.

1. Aim to make Arctic Council decisions concrete. "We have been very good at analyzing challenges, but we must do something about them.” He pointed to last year’s agreement on search and rescue, the first “legally binding” agreement developed through the council, and current moves towards dealing with oil spills as examples of the kind of evolution needed.

2. Improve communications. Most people don’t know that the council exists, or if they do, what it does. The only way for the council to be seen as relevant is to talk about what it does. A new communications strategy has just been approved, he said.

3. Focus on the human dimension. Four million people live in the Arctic, and many of these belong to indigenous cultures. “We must bring positive change in order to be legitimate.” Economic development opportunities must be improved but at the same time the environment and people’s particular social situations have to be respected.

4. The “Arctic voice” needs to be heard on the international stage. Bildt said this means the council must “state a more common policy” on key issues. At a recent meeting of Deputy Ministers, the member states decided to negotiate such a statement.

“As we hand over to Canada we hope to be able to make a statement of a common mission in the Arctic region,” he said.

The idea of speaking with one voice has been discussed before but hasn’t gone very far. Despite the similarities that Bildt pointed to – the focus on sustainable development as key to the Arctic’s future, the need for a scientific understanding of change in the region, the right to a secure future of the people who call the Arctic home – there are many national priorities and state interests that could stand in the way of anything other than a weak position statement.

Time will tell. In 2002, the Arctic Council looked to Indigenous Peoples to carry its message to the World Summit on Sustainable Development. They did but none of the Arctic states would agree to mention the Arctic in the final political accord.

Ten years latter, we come to Rio+20. Given all the rapid and irreversible changes we are witnessing in the Arctic, will any Arctic state champion the links between sustainable development in the polar regions and the rest of the world?

[1] Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, United States, Russia

[2] Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwitch'in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Congress, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), Saami Council


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