The rise in geopolitical importance of the Arctic region since the mid-2000s has been well articulated and documented. Concomitantly, the stature of the Arctic Council, the region’s premier intergovernmental forum, has gone up, as demonstrated by a growing interest in the organization by both Arctic and non-Arctic state governments.
This state of affairs has led many commentators to invest in the Arctic Council as a monopolizing force in Arctic politics; to place it at the apex of a hierarchical pyramid, rather than just one among many regional organizations. The clearest evidence of this has been the undue importance assigned to the Observership that was granted to a number of Asian states to the Arctic Council in 2013; the reaction against the so-called Arctic Five grouping of Arctic littoral states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, the United States and Russia), which has been denounced as undermining the Arctic Council and the regional stability and peaceful consensus it has embodied; and the lamentation that the Arctic Council doesn’t address traditional security and military issues in the region.
There is no doubt that the Arctic Council is an important – probably the most important – intergovernmental forum in the Arctic region. But it is facile to suggest that all Arctic affairs can or should fall within its mandate. The Arctic Council has real structural and organizational limitations. As regional governance gets more complex, additional forums should be welcomed – or as many already exist, recognized – for the role they play in effectively governing the Arctic.
The nature of Arctic governance
Perhaps it is anticipated that most international relations theorists and government diplomats would see the Arctic region primarily through a lens of state-to-state cooperation (with the inclusion of Indigenous peoples identified as a welcome novelty). Doing so naturally highlights the centrality of the Arctic Council. But a trend is emerging that, on the one hand, sees the Arctic Council as much more powerful than it is in practice, and on the other hand, diminishes the role that other fora play.
Limitations of the Arctic Council
Commentators sometimes depict the Council as a catch-all for Arctic issues, when in fact it was established with a very circumscribed mandate: The Arctic Council deals with issues of environmental protection and sustainable development. Among other things that regional organizations typically address, this excludes trade, security and immigration. And while sustainable development has been painted with a wide brush in the Arctic, the Council’s work in that regard has been extremely limited, though arguably useful and appropriate, dealing mainly with research syntheses and best practices on issues such as suicide prevention, cancer incidence and promoting Indigenous languages. The Arctic Council has no mandate or funding to devise policy or implement programming in the key areas of health, education and infrastructure.
In addition to the narrow mandate, the structure of the Arctic Council imposes limitations. It is technically a forum and not a treaty-based organization. It has no legal character, meaning it has no mandate to enact or enforce agreements or regulations; the Search and Rescue (2011) and Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response (2013) Agreements, for example, were concluded under its auspices, but not within the Arctic Council.
In recent years, the Council has been equipped with a permanent secretariat; however, it provides mainly administrative functions and is not an executive body. The Arctic Council is managed by a two-year rotating chairmanship, with the chair given the right and responsibility to set the agenda and host meetings. While many agree this format provides momentum to the Arctic Council, it does, at the same time, mean agendas are often reflective of the chair’s domestic priorities; it means that goals are often pursued on a short-term basis, and that there can be a discontinuity between chairmanship agendas.
Funding is also inconsistent, with a limited defined contribution from all Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States) to fund secretariat activities ($106,418 per annum, though Norway, as host, contributes significantly more). Programmatic and working group funding are often in-kind and/or ad hoc, depending on states’ particular interests and objectives. The level of Arctic Council funding is not such that it can implement policy or programming outside of the parameters of other levels of governance, even if states were amenable to such a role.
The Arctic Council also has as a category of membership Permanent Participants (PPs), which includes six organizations representing Indigenous peoples of the Arctic across seven Arctic states. Actual decisions in the Council are made based on the consensus of the eight Arctic states; however, in practice, the PPs are actively consulted and have significant influence on how and if activities move forward. At the same time, the PPs have real and glaring administrative and financial capacity challenges when compared to states. Often it is the same one or two people who are responsible for attending and contributing to Arctic Council meetings on behalf of the PPs. While work is being done to improve the capacity and funding autonomy of the PPs, their central role in the Arctic Council limits the amount of work that the Arctic Council can take on while still meaningfully involving them. The breadth and scope of the Arctic Council’s mandate cannot expand much more without compromising the essential aspect of Indigenous inclusion in its work.
The role of alternate fora
If it is true that the Arctic Council cannot manage all of Arctic governance, it is also true that it has never tried to do so. At the regional level, cooperation has come in many formats, many of which preceded the Arctic Council’s establishment in 1996. These include organizations such as the Northern Forum, the International Arctic Science Committee and the Association of World Reindeer Herders.
Subregional cooperation has also been very prominent in the Arctic, from the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the West Nordic Council to the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Saami Council. In general, subnational Arctic cooperation between the Nordic states and in the Barents region has been strong, while cooperation between Russia and Alaska, and Alaska, Canada and Greenland has been weak outside of Indigenous linkages. The Arctic Caucus of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, encompassing Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, may alter that somewhat as a relevant platform for closer economic and infrastructural development cooperation across boundaries.
While it is not always well documented, there has been significant intergovernmental cooperation outside of the Arctic Council as well. Indeed the most important governance arrangements impacting the Arctic come from international, non-regional bodies: the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs much of the use of the Arctic Ocean; and the International Maritime Organization, which concluded a mandatory Polar Code for ships operating in polar waters this year. Because these are legally binding conventions, they are much more effectual in terms of delimiting states’ actions.
Other major treaties that apply to the Arctic are: the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a broad range of conventions and other instruments adopted by the International Maritime Organization, the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter and its 1996 Protocol, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.
Relevant non-binding instruments include the Declaration of Principles and Agenda 21 adopted by the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and its Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. Some regional conventions are also relevant, including the Convention on the Protection of the Northeast Atlantic and the Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries, both of which extend into the Arctic region.
In addition to this plethora of international agreements, several Arctic-specific fora have been established outside of the Arctic Council. For example, the Arctic Five – while not a formal body – concluded the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in 1973, and signed a Declaration to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean in 2015. The UNCLOS provisions concerning extended continental shelf also especially concern the Arctic Five and they have agreed to the peaceful resolution of overlapping claims there as well, with the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration.
Also, the Arctic Economic Council was established at the behest of the Arctic Council; however, it is very deliberately an independent body with its own governing body, secretariat and mandate of facilitating Arctic business-to-business activities and responsible economic development.
And while it is true that the Arctic Council does not discuss military security, the Arctic states have met on those issues outside of the parameters of the Council. Two meetings of the staff of the Arctic chiefs of defense were held before Russia’s intervention into Crimea abandoned them. However, an Arctic Coast Guard Forum involving all eight Arctic states was established in October 2015, despite those broader geopolitical tensions.
A web, not a pyramid
Articulating the Arctic Council’s limitations in regional governance is not the same as arguing that it is weak or insignificant. The Arctic Council has been critical in developing norms around regional peace and stability, fostering cooperation on establishing environmental regulations, and privileging the perspectives of local inhabitants, especially Indigenous peoples. It has also led to groundbreaking research on the Arctic environment, which continues to inform policy options of the Arctic states, collectively and individually. But it is important to understand what the Arctic Council can and cannot do in order to identify what governance needs should be filled by other players. And it is critical not to proscribe alternate fora seeking to deal with issues for which the Arctic Council is either not equipped or not mandated to address.
Arctic regional governance is best viewed as a web with the Arctic Council in the middle, not a pyramid with the Arctic Council at the top.
One of the most virtuous characteristics of Arctic politics has been the way in which cooperation is privileged and sought. It would be regrettable if the multitude of organizations and fora that are also concerned with Arctic governance were perceived as being in competition with one another, rather than pieces of the same puzzle working toward commonly held goals.
To that end, as Canadian policymakers prepare for the next phase of regional Arctic cooperation, it will be important to recognize and accept the Arctic Council’s limitations and seek to address the gaps through other fora. Environmental and ocean issues, which are inherently transboundary, will continue to be best managed at a regional level with broader international engagement. However, development issues and solutions, particularly with regard to infrastructure, transportation, large-scale resource exploitation, telecommunications and Arctic-focused research, will benefit from increasing subnational leadership and involvement. This level of governance is absent from many Arctic Council activities and should be promoted.
Other existing fora, such as the Arctic Five, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, the Arctic Economic Council, and influential conferences such as the Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers, should continue to be embraced and developed. Canada should continue to reject claims that these fora are inherently competitive and ensure that communications between such groups are strong and that their activities do not overlap unnecessarily.
There is plenty of work in the Arctic to go around. The Arctic Council is, as it is often described, preeminent in the region, but there is no advantage to designating it as peerless.
This piece originally appeared in “North of 60: Toward a Renewed Canadian Arctic Agenda,” and is reprinted here with permission. Read the full report here.