As the economic and political realities of the Arctic begin to shift, progress follows only where cooperation leads.
The Arctic is a world apart. The distances are epic, and the weather often dangerously extreme. The social and cultural realities are ages old and complex.
In an area once importantly defined by the estrangements of the Cold War, a common future for the Arctic states now finds expression in the form of the Arctic Council, a body created by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996, precisely to provide a means for promoting cooperation.
Uniquely, the member states of this governing body Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, United States are joined by six area Aboriginal groups who are permanent representatives to the Council.
And while there remains a popular focus on sovereignty and military presence, the Arctic Council continues to grow in stature as it meets more meaningful challenges. A binding agreement has recently been reached about cooperation on search and rescue (SAR), and discussions are shaping a common approach to the crucial issue of marine pollution.
Within the Arctic community of nations, the settlement of Norway and Russia’s 40-year dispute over the Barents Sea has unfolded directly into a joint initiative Barents 2020 that begins with protecting the environment and has grown into plans for international collaboration, the setting of standards for the oil and gas industry, joint Russian-Norwegian advanced studies in petroleum technology, and a program of outreach to other Arctic countries.
Ultimately, the remaining outstanding decisions about maritime (seabed) jurisdiction in the Arctic will be made within the legal framework set by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), specifically Article 76. Yet what might seem a battleground for lawyers has instead been the meeting place for researchers working together to define the outer limits of polar continental shelves.
Intellectually, it makes sense to share knowledge. Furthermore, the physical reality of the Arctic demands a model of mutual aid. Canadian and Danish researchers share duties in the Lincoln Sea area where the countries territorial claims abut. The Canadian icebreaker Louis St. Laurent and the American icebreaker Healy conducted bathymetric seismic surveys of the Beaufort Sea together, in another area where divergent claims remain unresolved.
The conversation among Arctic researchers of different countries is now taken entirely for granted, and the implications are profound. The International Polar Year (IPY), 2007-2008, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WTO) and the International Council for Science (ICSU), and supported by more than 60 countries, created among many other things a dense net of international cooperation. Fifty thousand scientists and 200 IPY networks now encircle the poles with a growing body of shared knowledge and interpersonal communication.
As the uses of that knowledge spill into the growing Arctic transportation and resource development sectors, the cooperation of science with industry will inescapably also mean the cooperation of many jurisdictions. Crucially, those jurisdictions must include northern people whose land claim settlements in Canada now give them a powerful voice and significant rights. Again the way forward must be charted through collaboration, accommodation, the integration of western and indigenous knowledge, and a broadening perspective.
The government of Canada which will next chair the Arctic Council from 2013-2015 has already recognized the principle of Arctic cooperation and made meaningful commitment to it in the form of the decision to build the Canada High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, and which is to be made available for international use.
Indeed, today the Arctic is becoming far less a world apart. There is unprecedented interest in the region, not just from the Arctic coastal states, but also from across Europe and from China, Korea, India and many other countries. Managing all that that entails will be a global challenge of the early 21st century. Fortunately, the emerging structures and context for decisions are based on cooperation, and on what is known and what is shared.
Dr. Peter Harrison is Stauffer-Dunning Chair and director of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University. He is Chair of the International Polar Year wrap up conference.
The International Polar Year wrap up conference, From Knowledge to Action, will be held at the Palais de Congres, Montreal, from April 22-27, 2012. The IPY included the work of 50,000 researchers from more than 60 countries who collaborated in more than 228 international networks. The Conference will bring together more than 2200 researchers, decision-makers, indigenous people and private sector representatives to discuss the results of IPY work, and to consider the particular needs of the polar regions in a changing world.