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10th Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region
Hof, Akureyri,
5 September 2012
A Privileged Club or a Global Forum:
Arctic Governance and the Role of the Arctic Council
Valur Ingimundarson
Given the dramatic increase in global interest in the Arctic accentuated by media
spectacles about its lucrative potential or as a site of future conflict, it is not surprising the role
of the Arctic Council has become central in the debate over Arctic governance. Not long ago,
questions were raised about the Council’s continued relevance and viability, leading to
intensified calls for changing it from a decision-shaping body into a decision-making one.
The Arctic Five initiative, for example, was seen by many as a challenge to the Arctic
Council, undercutting its legitimacy as the primary institutional Arctic body and even
signaling a return to Great Power politics. To be sure, from its inception, the Council has been
respected for its scientific environmental work and its structural make-up has also provided
for meaningful multilateral cooperation and a focus on those who live in the Arctic.
Nonetheless, given its restricted mandate—the formal exclusion of political discussion and
security issues—doubts were voiced over its ability to continue to serve as the main vehicle
for dealing with what has been dubbed the “the New Arctic.”
As it has turned out, predictions of the Arctic Council’s death have not come to true.
On the contrary, following the controversial Ilulissat and Chelsea meetings of the Arctic
Five—which were criticized by the representatives of the indigenous peoples and the three
excluded Arctic states—more effort has been put into strengthening the Council.
outcome of the 2011 Nuuk Ministerial Meeting—the creation of a permanent Arctic
secretariat, the establishment of criteria for admitting new Arctic Council permanent
observers, and the SAR Agreement—has been hailed as a sign of its renewal as an
institutional body and as disproving the charge that the Arctic Five forum had relegated it to
the sidelines of Arctic governance. What is more, the SAR agreement was immediately used
as evidence of the Arctic Council’s evolving into a decision-making body.1
The proposal by the Standing Committee of the Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region2
reflects this willingness to buttress the governance structure of the Arctic Council without
jeopardizing or subverting its underlying premises. In this talk, I would like to offer a critique
of it as part of my discussion of Arctic governance as representing a mediation between
internationalization or regionalism, on the one hand, and state sovereignty and intergovernmentalism, on the other. Without sounding like an unrepentant postmodernist, I
believe that apart from the arguments put forward in the proposal, it also warrants some
deconstructive textual reading and analysis. I am, of course, mindful of the compromises that
have to be made when parliamentarians from different countries, representing different
national interests, engage in such politically sensitive undertakings. Nonetheless, while the
proposal highlights important questions over Arctic governance, it is ambiguous or silent
about other ones. Thus, the text contains tensions that need to be addressed and engaged.
The proposal seeks, generally, to convey an inclusive message. While making it clear
that the Arctic Eight should remain the core members and leaders of Arctic governance and
that the indigenous peoples of the Arctic retain their special status and role as Permanent
Participants, the involvement of Observers, including non-Arctic states, is welcomed as an
See comments made by Gustaf Lind at the World Oceans Summit in Singapore on the panel entitled The Arctic
- beacon of hope? (February 23, 2012),
“Arctic Governance in an Evolving Arctic Region” (draft), 2012, 1–12.
important element of cooperation and as contributing to new working practices.3 It is also a
tacit admission that the Arctic cannot be viewed as an isolated region and that its ecological
alterations are of universal significance, which influence other parts of the world.
The proposal also reiterates the Standing Committee’s previously stated position that
the Arctic Council should become a full-fledged international organization, with a treaty
mandate sanctioned by its members, a permanent secretariat and a stable budget.4 True, there
is bound to be resistance on the part of some Arctic states to such a treaty. Hence,
presumably the caveat—in the proposal—that the process should be conducted in parallel
with the normal work of the Council to prevent delaying and adverse effect on its activities.
But the idea serves the positive aim of supporting the institutional structure of the Council and
its legitimacy as the main Arctic international forum. Given the lack of adequate funding of
some the Arctic Council‘s projects, is it also important to make sure that its budget allocation
is consistent with the commitments of the member states. The 2011 decision to establish a
Permanent Secretariat should facilitate this goal.
The call for an Arctic vision and a ten-year strategic plan developed by a panel with
broad representation also sharpens the focus of the Arctic Council. The same can be said
about the proposal for holding am Arctic Summit involving the heads of state or governments
of the Arctic Council member states, as well as the heads of the permanents participants, and
for calling for an annual, rather than an bi-annual, Foreign Ministers Meetings at the Arctic
Council.5 Both ideas would give the Arctic Council more international weight.
The Standing Committee does not, however, put forward very bold or ambitious ideas
about cooperation that could be suited for legally binding agreements along the lines of the
SAR agreement and the prospective one on oil spill prevention. It mentions Arctic research
Ibid., 3.
Ibid., 7–8.
Ibid., 8–9.
and education and sustainable, eco-friendly tourism.6 It should prove relatively easy for the
Arctic Council come to an agreement on such issues. Given the support of the Standing
Committee for a mandatory code developed by the International Maritime Organization
(IMO) for ships in polar waters, it could also have been prioritized in the proposal.
There is silence on an other important issue: Arctic fisheries. At the International
Polar Year conference earlier this year, 2,000 scientists called for a moratorium on Arctic
high seas fishing to allow time for research of catch limits and development of an integrated
international Arctic fisheries management plan. This is, of course, a controversial issue that
concerns all the Arctic states. Finally, there is no hint of ending, in a formal way, the taboo
on discussing security issues within the Arctic Council. Given the fact that the SAR
agreement is a clear instance of a soft security issue, this sounds a bit strange. What accounts
for this timidity is probably the unwillingness to reopen a potentially divisive issue that dates
back to the establishment of the Arctic Council in the mid-1990s and its foundational
document, the Ottawa Declaration, which deliberately left out any reference to security. It
may be argued that that this is an anachronistic approach at a time when there is more
pressure for enhancing the Council‘s role and international profile. It may have served its
need during the post-Cold War period, when the residuals of the East-West conflict were still
being felt. But the current situation is different—and with the broader understanding of the
security concept, the topic should not be avoided. Another reason for not doing so is the fact
that hard security—with military activity—is still being practiced by stakeholding states in the
Strong arguments can, of course, be made for countering the media hype, political
rhetoric and posturing—captured in the phrase “The Scramble for the Arctic”—which creates
a distorted picture of Arctic geopolitics and conflict potentials. In this sense, the Ilulissat
Ibid., 9–10.
declaration of the Arctic Five, committing themselves to UNCLOS was useful. This effort
has been followed through such catchphrases as “High North, Low Tension,” or ritualistic
references to Mikhail Gorbachev‘s Arctic Zone of Peace Speech in the waning days of the
Cold War. But there is also the danger of going too far in the other direction: to turn a blind
eye on the incremental securitization currently taking place in the Arctic—in the name of
sovereignty controls and monitoring—and justified as a response to the region’s increased
geopolitical importance. This is, surely, not about projecting power over the Arctic as a
whole, and the increased military capabilities of the Arctic states are generally limited to
forces and equipment for policing and protection of national territories and territorial waters.
But for the benefit of stability and peaceful development in the Arctic, there is no reason for
omitting any discussions of the developments since they could—cumulatively—have an
impact on the future of the region.
There are, as noted, tensions in the Standing Committee’s proposal that require some
analysis. The willingness to strengthen the institutional structure of the Arctic Council and its
international cloud is tempered by its absolute insistence on the status quo when it comes the
prerogatives of the powers of the permanent members. Even if it is clear that the admission of
states that have applied for permanent observership would enhance the international stature of
the Arctic Council and its legitimacy, the role of the observers strictly limited. True,
representatives of the indigenous peoples have voiced fears of being marginalized if the role
of external actors is enhanced. And it is, of course, sensible to stress that the well-being, as
well as the values and rights, of the peoples of the Arctic region remain the focal priority. But
the language can also be interpreted as reflecting the fear—expressed subtextually by the
Arctic states themselves—of losing regional influence. In the draft, it is stated that the
consensus among parliamentarians was that the Arctic must not become a setting for activities
through which major powers influence forms of development prejudicial to the long term
interests, rights, and obligations of the peoples of the Arctic or the region’s sustainability. But
the repeated use of the wording “influx of new observers” suggests—rather ominously,
frankly—that the Arctic Council will be swamped and overwhelmed by non-Arctic members.
Again, since the role of the observers is limited—basically that of watching and listening—it
is a bit overblown to imply such an impact. Indeed, one can argue that the expression is
reminiscent of certain immigration discourses—that the admission of too many foreigners will
somehow impair the body politic. Given the fact that the only non-regional permanent
observer states so far admitted to the Arctic Council are European ones—it raises other
questions of exclusivity based on nationality and ethnicity. Instead of viewing observership
as a potential threat, it could also be seen as a stabilizing and confidence-building measure
designed to reassure non-Arctic peoples that Arctic governance is practiced in an open way.
A similar point can be raised about the discussion of the Arctic secretariat. The
proposal makes it clear that what it calls bona fide parties, accepted as observers, could bring
scientific, financial, and other contributions to the Arctic Council, as long as they commit
themselves to respect the criteria set by the Council. But there is no mention of an input by
the Arctic observers, when it recommends that the personnel of the Arctic Secretariat should
include representatives of member states, Permanent Participants and of indigenous peoples.
Another source of tension in the proposal resolves around what may be termed the
functional and inter-governmental aspects of Arctic governance. On the one hand, the SAR
agreement is welcomed as a legally-binding and normative instrument to strengthen the Arctic
Council. It is also an unstated admission of increased interest in the user aspects of the Arctic
arguably at the expense of preservationist ones. On other hand, the caveat is made that such
cooperation traditionally only involves states and that the structure in the Arctic Council will
not necessarily be used in process. Thus, the Permanent Participants, the Working Groups and
the observers will be different.7 On the surface, at least, this hedging points to concerns about
the Arctic Council developing along supranational lines diluting it as a forum of sovereign
states. It echoes, in some sense, the debate over the evolution and nature of the European
Union between the neo-functionalists—favoring increased integration and the pooling of
sovereignty at the European level—and the intergovernmentalists, who stressed the central
role of the nation-state.
This tension is not necessarily bad: regionalism that promotes integration in several
sectors, such as the economy, security, or environment, and regionalization—which takes
place as the result of social and economic interaction in a given area—often serve state
interests. One can, for example, view the two recent agreements—the 2010 NorwegianRussian Barents Sea Treaty and the 2011 SAR agreement—through the same multilateral
prism, even if they are different in many respects. The former is consistent with the
UNCLOS and the latter is the first normative agreement negotiated by the Arctic Council.
Both accomplishments can be explained as step-by-step processes—through interaction and
dialogue—or issue-specific areas of cooperation over a period of time.8 Thus, it has been
argued that the Barents Sea Treaty could act as a catalyst and generate pressure for the
resolution of other jurisdictional conflicts in the Arctic, such as the Danish-Canadian dispute
over Hans Island; the ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge, and the U.S.-Canadian
disagreement over territory in the Beaufort Sea. And, the SAR agreement has already added
momentum to the Arctic Council initiative to prevent oil pollution in the Arctic.
Counter-arguments can certainly be made. The Barents Sea Treaty was the result of
bilateral negotiations between two states, while the SAR agreement was made at a multilateral
regional venue. It is not certain that the Treaty was the logical outcome of the Ilulissat
meeting as scholars such as Ann Toft Sørensen has suggested. It reflected a compromise that
Ibid., 9.
See Ann Toft Sørensen, “Arctic International Relations, Version 2.0,” Global Society (forthcoming).
could be have reached decades ago, if there had been a political will to resolve the issue.
National self-interest and timing could have been instrumental here. And while the Treaty
may have a positive impact on other territorial disputes in Arctic, it is by no means certain.
The United States, for example, seems to be in no hurry to resolve the jurisdictional dispute
with Canada in the Beaufort Sea. Yet, the Barents Sea Treaty and the SAR agreement contain
many features of regional integration—which can either be seen as a challenge to the
prevailing state system or complementing it. The dilemma, which is clearly present in the
Standing Committee’s proposal, is to deal with the political implication of such integration: to
move beyond the sacrosanctity of sovereignty as the prime mover of Arctic governance.
As Oran R. Young has argued, the current Arctic agenda encompasses three categories
of concern: “first, those requiring the resolution of jurisdictional issues among the Arctic
states; second, those centering on relationships between the Arctic states and non-Arctic states
interested in the region; and third, those raising questions about the protection of Arctic ecosystems and cultures.”9 I have discussed the two first issues relating to Arctic governance.
When it comes to jurisdictional boundaries and resource access, individual state
interests in the Arctic are still prevailing. But it is when increased internationalization and
regionalization—such as a commitment to UNCLOS, an internationally-binding agreement on
Search and Rescue, a prospective mandatory code developed by the International Maritime
Organization (IMO) for ships in polar waters, and a possible Arctic Council agreement on oilspill prevention mechanisms—coincides with state interests that the possibility to move
forward on governance increases. Hence, the tension between these two issues can, in fact, be
interpreted as a forward-looking development. As for accommodating outside non-Arctic
interest in the region, the problem is more intractable. There, the danger is to try to have it
Oran R. Young, “Review Article: The future of the Arctic: cauldron of conflict or zone of peace?”
International Affairs, 87, 1 (2011), 189.
both ways—to enhance the international standing of the Arctic Council, while making no real
changes in an effort to preserve the privileged position of Arctic Council insiders.
Such an approach may surely be more agreeable than the institutionalization of a
divisive Arctic Five venue. The argument has been made that it serves no purpose to discuss
sovereignty issues in the Arctic Ocean within the cumbersome and slow processes of the
Arctic Council, with the input of non-state and other state actors. But when and if the Arctic
Five go beyond a discussion of legal claims in the Arctic Ocean and move to other issues that
many see as pertaining to all Arctic stakeholders, such as fisheries and environmental issues,
this could, indeed, create tensions and undermine the Arctic Council.
The decision by the Arctic Council to establish criteria for future permanent observers
also raises some critical questions. It has been hailed as a normative and transparent way of
admitting observers to the Council. There are not only cynics who argue that the NUUK
decision was a postponement strategy to mask real differences among the Arctic states over
inclusion and exclusion. In this way, extra time was being bought to make a decision on the
applications of China, the European Commission, and other applicant states. A case can
certainly be made for a formula to deal with increased interest of non-Arctic states in
participating in the Arctic Council’s work. And it is reasonable to insist on a real contribution
from applicants, when it comes to Arctic issues. But the possible inclusion of European
countries or bodies should not mean the exclusion of Asians states. To preserve the
credibility of the process, it is important that the admission criteria not be used as a
segregation tool. Similarly, if powerful external actors, with Arctic interests, such as China
and the EU, will continually be shut out, they will—in the name of their political and
economic influence—force themselves, in the end, to the negotiating table. It does not serve
collective interests in the Arctic to follow a course that could stoke future geopolitical friction
in the region. There is no need to issue dire warnings, at this stage, for the door is still open
for outside influence on Arctic issues. Nonetheless, there are protectionist mechanisms at
work here, which are not absent in the Standing Group’s proposal. It in its customary quirky
and sarcastic way, the British magazine the Economist captured the essence of the current
message of the Arctic states to the non-Arctic ones: “Welcome to the new world of the
warming Arctic. But remember who runs it.”10
The Economist, 24 March 2012.