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The Arctic Council at 20: The Value of Flexibility

This article is part of the Arctic in Context series of expert assessments of the Arctic Council at its 20th anniversary.

By Timo Koivurova and Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek

At its 20th anniversary, the Arctic Council received both a lot of praise and some critical reflection on its evolution since its establishment in September 1996. Among the body’s major accomplishments, and one of its unique characteristics among intergovernmental forums, is the inclusion of organizations of indigenous peoples as Permanent Participants alongside state officials, providing them with a strong voice in the Council’s discussions and activities. Moreover, over the course of its 20 years of existence, the Arctic Council has become the main generator of knowledge on the Arctic, significantly contributing to the world’s understanding of the effects of Arctic climate change for the region and beyond. It provided critical input to international conventions such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and the Minamata Convention on Mercury, offered negotiating space for several circumpolar legally binding agreements, and laid the ground for new regional entities to form. At the same time, critical voices have pointed to insufficient involvement of subnational Northern regions in the Council’s operations, deficiencies of the current organizational structure, avoidance of questions pertinent to Arctic military security in an increasingly insecure geopolitical context, and inadequate means of engagement with non-Arctic actors.

Both the achievements and the shortfalls of the Council can be traced to the foundations of formalized circumpolar cooperation, including the Rovaniemi Process, the Declaration on the Protection of the Arctic Environment, and the practices of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) developed in the early 1990s. While the Arctic Council extended the focus of the AEPS from environmental matters, primarily pollutants and biodiversity, to include issues related to sustainable development in the North, the organization’s structure and basic operating format remained the same. Working groups overseen by Senior Arctic Affairs Officials (SAAOs, later renamed to Senior Arctic Officials, or SAOs) have conducted most of the Council’s operations and the organization lacked stable funding. There was no permanent secretariat and the body’s non-legally binding decisions were made by consensus among the eight Arctic states following discussions with the Permanent Participants.

 Within that framework, the Arctic Council (and earlier the AEPS) did still conduct its work and deliver landmark scientific assessments, including the seminal Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), which ultimately changed the perception of the region from a “frozen desert” to a region undergoing profound change, and brought the Arctic from the peripheries closer to the center of international relations. The world’s attention was further drawn by media reports of an alleged emerging conflict over Arctic resources, the interest of powerful entities and states like the European Union and China in the implications of Arctic development, and new economic opportunities in the North. Those changes put the Arctic Council in the spotlight, and it has stayed there ever since.

The Council took steps to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and address rising challenges. It elaborated on and adopted criteria for admission and evaluation of Arctic Council Observers, accepted six new Observer countries at the Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, and established a permanent secretariat located in Tromsø. It began to assign task forces to target specific matters within a given time frame, and three of them paved the way for the first legally binding agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council. Finally, it helped form external bodies to address particular topics of increasing importance, such as the Arctic Economic Council, Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and Arctic Offshore Regulators Forum.

The Arctic Council has accomplished all of this largely within the format put in place in 1991—a time when the world’s interest in the Arctic waned after the end of Cold War. Not only has the Arctic Council responded exceedingly well to the challenges it faced, but it also displayed a lot of creativity in finding new ways to tackle them. It arguably owes this achievement to its basis in soft law and the space left for interpretation by the relatively general provisions of its founding documents.

However, this does not mean there is no room for improvement. In the rapidly transforming biophysical and geopolitical environment, especially in the Arctic, the Council needs to be able to cope with change. The flexibility of the Arctic Council has been helpful, and while this characteristic will remain valuable in the future, there are weaknesses in the functioning of the Council that should be addressed in order to better prepare for future challenges.

Some of those issues were identified by Danish, Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, and U.S. institutions that collaborated on a multilateral audit of national participation in the Arctic Council. The results of their work were highlighted in a memorandum published in May 2015, which identified areas for improvement in the Council’s organizational structure, in establishing priorities and securing funding, and in ensuring the effective implementation of voluntary recommendations adopted by member states. Finally, the memorandum noted the important contributions of indigenous groups to the Council, but stressed the barriers they face in terms of participating in Arctic Council meetings and activities.

These problems are not short-term concerns that can easily be resolved. With a rapidly changing environment and growing interest in the Council’s activities, however, the body cannot back down from confronting them if it is to retain its status as the premier intergovernmental forum for Arctic issues. At a meeting in Portland, Maine in October 2016, the Senior Arctic Officials agreed in principle to develop a long-term strategic plan for the Council. A comprehensive, overarching strategy has never been articulated before, and delegations have begun to discuss, among other issues, how such a plan could enhance the ability of the Arctic Council and its subsidiary bodies to work together. While the aim of the document would be to identify the strategic priorities for the Council over the next decade or longer (such as sustainable development, the well-being of Arctic inhabitants, peace in the region, and international cooperation), the discussions should also consider improvements to the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the Council. Additionally, making consistent efforts to tackle an agreed-upon set of issues could contribute to continuity between rotating chairmanships—a much-needed adjustment in a forum engaged in a wide range of projects.

Despite its deficiencies and emerging needs, it is heartening to note that the Arctic Council has thus far been able to address many of the problems it has faced. The Council’s flexible structure has enabled it to overcome one challenge after another and gain influence in numerous policy areas, whether via scientific assessments, legally binding treaties, or new Arctic bodies. While those efforts are not always fully effective in resolving the concerns at stake, their utility and added value should not be put aside amid discussions over the reorganization and strengthening of the Council. Particularly at a time of geopolitical tension due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and uncertainty related to new leadership in the United States, the Arctic Council’s flexibility can be its greatest asset, keeping it a platform for contact and collaboration between states clashing in other parts of the world. This quality was clearly apparent when the Arctic Council continued its work amid the sanctions imposed on Russia by all the other member states. During that period, it even managed to complete negotiations—co-chaired by representatives of Russia and the United States—of the third legally binding agreement on science cooperation in the Arctic.

As the Arctic Council considers how to make its next 20 years as successful as its first, it is crucial to ensure that these efforts will not make the body more rigid and thus less responsive to a rapidly altering environment, but rather enable it to adapt to and constructively address emerging challenges.

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Timo Koivurova is a research professor and director at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland. He specializes in Arctic law and governance.

Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek is a researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland and a fellow of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). She is also an alumna of the Young Scientists Summer Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and of the AAAS-TWAS Science Diplomacy training course.

[Photo courtesy of RogDel]

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