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Visualizing the Arctic Council at 20

When the Arctic Council came into being with the signing of the Ottawa Declaration on Sept. 19, 1996, its survival was far from a foregone conclusion. Now, after 20 years in operation, the time has come for reflection. Founded as a consensus-based forum for cooperation, coordination, and interaction between Arctic states and, significantly, with the participatory inclusion of Arctic Indigenous communities, the Arctic Council was resplendent with post-Cold War optimism. Yet, the founding principles of the Council alone obscure the complexity and lengthy negotiations that mark the day-to-day operations of the Council. World Policy Institute’s Arctic in Context initiative presents a series of expert assessments of the Arctic Council at its 20th anniversary. –E.M.D.

By Klaus Dodds

This year the Arctic Council celebrates its 20th anniversary. The Ottawa Convention, signed on Sept. 19, 1996, is short and to the point. But the tone and content was clear: The Council would operate as a forum bringing together the eight Arctic states and the six permanent participants, mindful of the need to ensure the “full involvement of indigenous people and their communities.” Military and security matters were excluded from consideration and the Council was imagined more as an intergovernmental forum than as a treaty-based organization.

What has made the issues and concerns of the Council so very different from the mid-1990s is the shift in global interest in the Arctic region. When the Ottawa Convention was negotiated and signed in 1996, the biggest news stories were elsewhere—the Taliban were establishing their authority in Afghanistan and France had just stopped nuclear testing in the South Pacific, but there was rising concern in media and government about climate change. Fast forward 20 years, and the Arctic embodies the future geographies of climate change—melting ice, disrupted infrastructure and communities, and ecosystem change.

The membership of the Arctic Council can point to a great deal of success, such as a succession of rotating chairmanships, a permanent secretariat, influential reports and interventions from task forces and working groups, and legally binding agreements on search and rescue and oil response management, as well as a new agreement forthcoming on scientific cooperation. A separate body called the Arctic Economic Council was also initiated during the Canadian chairmanship (2013-2015), which preceded the current U.S. chairmanship (2015-2017). Other areas of achievement include embracing observers, including a tranche of East and South Asian states in 2013, and tightening up the rules and procedures governing the working of the Arctic Council, including, notably, what is expected of observers in terms of their participation and engagement. Under the revised rules and procedures, observers are subject to review and possible exclusion if they fail to demonstrate their value to the workings of the Arctic Council.  

If you look for it, you can find plenty of commentary over the intervening period reflecting critically on the functioning of the Arctic Council. Debate has ranged from whether there the Council needs a stronger legal basis (moving from soft law forum to something more treaty-based) to concerns over the funding and support of Permanent Participant involvement, two-year chairmanships and agenda setting, the role of the AEC and whether it distracts from the environmental and scientific agenda of the Council, the role of observers and whether there are now too many (there are over 30), and recent issues such as the status of European Union as an observer and the anxiety over relations with Russia post-Ukraine crisis.

How was the Arctic Council itself chosen to mark this anniversary? The most interesting artifact is perhaps a five-minute video on the official website. With some jaunty background music, it is a series of slides of notable, predominantly white people dressed in the business attire associated with the urban architectures of the eight Arctic states, interspersed with depictions of indigenous peoples performing traditional drum dances and ice-filled landscapes populated with whale bones and reindeer. There are no images of observers, state or non-state, at all. A viewer would have no sense whatsoever that this international forum might have broader global engagement with European and Asian states or international bodies such as the World Meteorological Organization. The emphasis appears to be on meetings and receptions rather than, say, the actual work of the Council in areas such as science and the environment.

What would be interesting is to learn more about the production process itself. Who selected the images? Was every Arctic state and Permanent Participant organization responsible for choosing ones that they were closely associated with as ministerial host? Did the Secretariat put together the final collage using a simple chronological order as the ordering principle? Watching the video, another possible ordering principle comes to mind—one that emphasizes how the Arctic Council reproduces itself through a series of rituals, cultural performances, and events and gives the viewer the opportunity to mull over whether that process makes the forum distinctive or interesting.

One area that sets the Council apart is the role that indigenous peoples play in its operations. As Permanent Participants they are integral, and yet the images selected for the five-minute video appear to present them as aftermath—native peoples providing entertainment and offering a different visual aesthetic as epitomized by traditional dress and dance. There are some photographic images of Permanent Participant representatives with officials and ministers of Arctic States, but that appears largely incidental. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a host of other images that never get taken, let alone displayed. How many Permanent Participants have not been able to make Arctic Council meetings because of funding and visa problems? The cost and organizational burden of hosting and attending meetings is not insignificant in small Arctic towns.

More generally, as the Arctic Council develops its presence virtually, there is more work to be done on the visual archive it is developing and exhibiting. Alongside a growing archive of video and tweets, we have an opportunity to reflect on how this forum with claims to a distinctive character imagines and represents itself.

We might ask: What could a 25th anniversary video do differently? Will it acknowledge the presence and work of observers? Will native and indigenous peoples be represented first and foremost as active participants in an intergovernmental forum? Will more Arctic Council meetings be held virtually as part of a carbon-offset strategy and in recognition of the burden placed on smaller Arctic towns? What is striking about the short 20th anniversary video is what it wishes to emphasize indirectly: that the Arctic Council is not the Arctic Assembly—a looser and more informal annual gathering inspired by the former president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. The Arctic Assembly is akin to an autumnal jamboree where almost anyone and everyone with an interest in the Arctic can participate. Meanwhile, in the cosy confines of the Arctic Council, a bit like the fictional bar in Cheers, folk know one another.

*****

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Klaus Dodds is professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and co-author of the book, Scrambles for the Poles: Contemporary Geopolitics of the Arctic and Antarctic (with Mark Nuttall, Polity 2015).

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]

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