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Security in the Arctic: Time for Dialogue

By Thordur Aegir Oskarsson

The Arctic Agenda will without a doubt be affected by the political developments currently taking place in Eastern Europe. In fact, certain meetings of the Arctic Council are already affected by the sanctions against Russia. The question becomes now, how will the turn of events affect Arctic cooperation? The main substantive work of the Arctic Council regarding sustainable development, environmental protection, and general safety are presently not at the risk of being compromised, but the threat lingers.

The Arctic Council has enjoyed a good political tailwind for over a decade, having completed constructive work moving it away from its former function as, exclusively, a policy shaping body. Now, the Arctic Council has moved into the territory of pragmatic policy making. There are already two Arctic-wide agreements to its credit, one on search and rescue, and the other on prevention of oil spills.

However the timeless message in Bob Dylan's famous magnum opus, “The Times They Are A-Changin,” reminds us that nothing stays the same, “new lines will be drawn” and “walls are being rattled.” There is no guarantee that the cracks presently detected within the Arctic Circle will not happen again in the future, specifically to arguably the most neglected and also the most sensitive dimension of the Arctic Agenda, the security dimension. It is paramount to address the broader security issues of the High North in a comprehensive way. The most productive way to do this is to turn attention to preventive mechanisms such as confidence and security building measures (CSBMs).

The relatively successful work of the Arctic Council since its launch in 1996 has always been characterized by pragmatic cooperation among the eight Arctic state members. World history would lead to the conclusion that the scale of foreseen Arctic commercialization and resource development will more than likely lead to greater security challenges than the present rudimentary arrangements that the Arctic governance may not be able to handle.

In earnest, there are already signs of fragmentation present regarding the Arctic issue agenda. The five Arctic “coastal” states have carved out the fisheries as a subject matter exclusively for their discussion. One can argue that this goes against the spirit of the Arctic Council. Iceland has been working on guaranteeing its place as an Arctic coastal state and emphasizing that a strict geographical delineation when addressing such an important issue is unsatisfactory and that legal, economic, and ecological aspects of Iceland's position in the Arctic should be respected.

All Arctic Council member states have strong national interests in the development of the region, for example territorial and/or resource claims. There are international mechanisms in place for solving territorial claims, most importantly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Moving forward, it's important that Arctic Council members use these mechanisims for solving disputes. Although the military issues are not part of the Arctic Council agenda, all the participating states have strong security and safety interests when it comes to this expansive region. 

This is reflected in various ways in the domestic security policies of the Arctic states. Foreign Minister of Iceland, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, has emphasized the importance of ensuring Iceland's broad security interests in the Arctic and has defined security issues as one of the five  major themes or challenges that should be addressed in its Arctic policy. Sveinsson has further stated that the increased international importance of the Arctic region has increased its link with the developments in the security field in other parts of the world. Iceland, a NATO  member, has long emphasized the necessity of “situational awareness” as regards to the High North, arguing that it is an important aspect of NATO's role as a security provider for its member states located in the region.

There is a growing demand for the Arctic agenda to include military policy or "hard security" issues, when dealing with broader environmental and human security agendas. Thus far, security discussion has mostly taken place within the academic community and the military, while policy makers in the field of security have been more or less absent. 

While the comprehensive and coherent approach to the security issue is lacking, there is some potential to change this with new processes such as the independent consultation forum consisting of the top military leaders of the eight Arctic Council states, the Northern Chiefs of Defense Forum.  However, this process is not to be immune from souring relations between NATO allies and Russia because of Ukraine.

It seems that any endeavour to discuss security related issues in the Arctic would have to take into consideration the global context of the issues facing the Arctic region. Actually J. Kapyla and Harri Mikola, in a previously published briefing paper, have argued that “should an interstate conflict surface in the Arctic, the source is most likely to be related to a complex global dynamics that may spill over to the region and which cannot be addressed with existing Arctic governance mechanisms.” The events in Ukraine seem to support this argument.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the Arctic can never be immune from intensifying security concerns in Europe, in particular where all member states of the Arctic Council are involved. In addition, some of the observer states outside Europe have their own security agenda that can possibly have political effect in Europe in general and the Arctic region in particular.

A forum of concrete dialogue to address the comprehensive security issues within the Arctic Circle needs to be established. A first substantive step might be to evaluate the feasibility of introducing CSBMs into the region. All the Arctic states are also members to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and politically committed to various sophisticated CSBMs measures of that organization that could be adapted to the broad Arctic security environment. Such measures are in order for the Arctic, though they might not offer a patent solution for unpredictable headwinds in form of ripples from political and security crisis outside the region.

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Thordur Aegir Oskarsson is currently the Ambassador of Iceland to Canada.

[Photos of courstey of Flickr]

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