Policy
April 8, 2013

High Arctic ambition: From the periphery to the mainstream

In May 2013 Canada will take on the Arctic Council chairmanship for a second time. In the last six years, the circumpolar North has emerged from the periphery of global geopolitics to become a mainstream issue for the 21st century. Two primary forces are at work in this transformation: climate change and globalization.

The Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council, signed in Ottawa on 19 September 1996, created the Council as a high level forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection. A unique feature of the Council is the Permanent Participants, six (originally three) international organizations that represent Arctic indigenous peoples in the discussions in Council.

Issues arising from climate change and globalization are complex. The Arctic is extremely vulnerable to climate change and this region is now experiencing some of the most rapid and severe climate change on Earth. Over the next 100 years, climate change is expected to accelerate, contributing to major physical, ecological, social and economic changes, many of which have already begun. Indeed, the Arctic can be viewed as a barometer that is highly responsive to global processes. Changes in Arctic climate that are resulting in loss of sea ice and glacial ice will also affect the rest of the world through increased global warming, rising sea levels and possible changes to ocean circulation.

Globalization is also reaching into the Arctic. A burgeoning human population is turning its attention northwards, anticipating that reduction in sea ice will lead to accessible natural resources on land and in marine areas. Arctic tourism has begun to increase rapidly.

Canada’s first Arctic Council chairmanship from 1996 to 1998 was unremarkable for a range of reasons. Primary among them was a preoccupation with procedural matters during the initial two years of the Council. Certain states were not prepared to engage in new substantive work until rules of procedure had been agreed upon. Ongoing work that had begun under the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, established in 1991, continued in the four working groups inherited from that process, but terms of reference for a new sustainable development program also had to be negotiated during Canada’s chairmanship. The rules of procedure and terms of reference for the sustainable development program took until February 1998 to resolve, too late for Canada to launch new substantive initiatives.

Indeed, the new Rules and Sustainable Development Terms of Reference did not technically come into effect until the ministers met and approved them in September 1998 in Iqaluit, and by then Canada’s first chairmanship was done. For the next 15 years other Arctic states chaired the Council in successive two-year terms: United States, Finland, Iceland, Russia, Norway, Denmark and finally Sweden. (Norway chaired for the period 2006-2009).

Why is the upcoming chairmanship of the Council important to Canada and how will it likely differ this time around? Two essential points must be kept in mind about the Council.

First, the Council is not a formal organization with a legal personality. It is more an aggregation of Arctic states that have committed to cooperate to share information, discuss common issues, and collaborate on efforts to better understand the circumpolar North.

Second, decisions in the Council are made by a consensus of the Arctic states but are not binding in a legal sense. (Only recently have the Arctic states begun to use the forum of the Council to facilitate the negotiation of formal, binding agreements that are then entered into by the states as independent actors.) The program of work for each chairmanship is agreed to by consensus at the beginning of the chairmanship period, so Canada will need to have its agenda worked out and approved at the ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden in May 2013.

Why is this relevant for Canada’s chairmanship? Quite simply, Canada, and any Arctic state for that matter, can lead but not dictate within the Council. In other words, an Arctic state cannot unilaterally impose the program during its chairmanship. During the two years of a chairmanship period, an Arctic state can emphasize, within reason, certain issues of importance to it, but it is not always the case that other Arctic states go along with all elements of a host country’s proposed program.

There are three primary audiences Canada will need to keep in mind as it frames its chairmanship program: a domestic audience that includes the North and the rest of the country; a circumpolar audience that includes the seven other Arctic states and the six international organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples; and, finally, an international audience that includes existing Observers to the Council and a range of important non-Arctic states that have applied for Observer status in the Council, namely China, India, Italy, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Mongolia and the European Commission.

What Canada does domestically during its chairmanship is, of course, up to Canada. It can use the chairmanship to highlight Canadian activities, research and priorities. It can use the period to initiate new domestic initiatives to which it wants to give particular profile.

On the circumpolar side, Canada must convince all the other Arctic states to follow its lead. The six international organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples are not included formally in the consensus but their views are influential and can have an impact on an Arctic state’s willingness to join, or not join, a consensus. This process of building consensus requires skillful diplomacy, sound ideas of common interest to all Arctic states, and generally some level of human and financial support.

On the international side, the Arctic interests of the European Commission and Asian countries cannot be discounted. The Arctic is not a closed system. In many cases Arctic change is driven by forces from outside the Arctic and will also likely have significant environmental, economic, political and social consequences in non-Arctic regions. Both Arctic and non-Arctic interests must accelerate their efforts to find processes and mechanisms to improve dialogue and take actions.

Quite simply, a coordinated global approach is needed. Any effort to better understand the dynamics of Arctic human and natural systems, and their relevance to the larger global context, has a potential to better inform policy responses. All efforts to generate cooperation have the potential to empower collaborative actions.

Expectations run high, domestically and abroad, that Canada will take the Council to new heights. Canada has signaled that an over-arching theme for its chairmanship will be Development for the People of the North. Three sub-themes have also been highlighted: Arctic Resource Development, Responsible and Safe Arctic Shipping and Sustainable Circumpolar Communities. In the next few months Canada will need to bolster these themes with substantive proposals for activities of sufficient interest to the other Arctic states to ensure a consensus at the ministerial meeting in May 2013.

Bernie Funston is chair of the board of directors of the Canadian Polar Commission. He was directly involved in the Arctic Council from 1995 to 2010, including the negotiations to establish the Council, chairing its rules and procedures committee and serving as executive secretary of its Sustainable Development Working Group.

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