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The Arctic Council – a need for reform

5 April 2018

This article originally appeared in The Circle: What's next for the Arctic?. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

THE ESTABLISHMENT of a permanent secretariat in Tromsø, Norway and the signing of three internationally binding agreements created under the auspices of the Arctic Council have raised its political prominence in recent years. At the 2013 Kiruna ministerial meeting the question of observer status for the EU and Non-Arctic States headed the agenda. China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea were granted permanent observer status. Aspirations to this designation by these and other countries show how the region is perceived as important by stakeholders outside the geographically limited Arctic region. The Arctic Council is popular.

Furthermore, the Council’s agenda is widening and getting more diffuse. The Arctic Council has produced substantial knowledge on circumpolar issues and informed the debate on challenges and opportunities in the region, ranging from research on climate change to introduction of shipping guidelines and emphasizing regional health issues. It is a significant player in the region as a producer of knowledge, presenter of guidelines and recommendations, Arctic environment assessment and as a monitoring body. In 1996 the Council was running 30 projects; today the number is passing 80 and is likely to grow. One could claim, however, without any serious discussion on which direction.

I would like to present three recommendations to meet the governance challenges facing the Arctic Council.

  • First, a clearer vision/strategy for the work done at the Council is needed. The Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) have started defining vision, but it needs to be higher on the agenda. A formulation of such a strategy both at political and working group (WG) levels will enhance continuity and allow for a more structured and coordinated approach to whatever political issues have been given priority. A comprehensive vision for the Arctic could be formulated at an Arctic Summit.
  • Secondly, with an increasing workload, coordination challenges need to be addressed through an expert panel to look at the question of coordination and restructuring. This debate must involve all relevant stakeholders (permanent participants, SAOs, and WGs).
  • Finally, a recurring challenge is the frequency of travel and growing number of meetings related to Arctic Council business. A solution might be to arrange one of the two annual SAO meetings in the capital city of the state holding the chairmanship. This would increase participation for relevant stakeholders including Indigenous people. In connection with such a SAO meeting, the WGs could conduct workshops on issues relevant to the agenda. This should apply both to designing new projects and running existing ones. An annual “Arctic Week” could be arranged in the capital of the state holding the chairmanship.

These suggestions, if implemented, could strengthen the work of the Arctic Council and it could still be the most important international forum in the Arctic, with a clearer vision and more inclusive character.

SVEIN VIGELAND ROTTEM is a senior research fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute