Op-ed: The Arctic Council in Danger

Arktisk råd-forsker Svein Vigeland Rottem under en debatt på Arendalsuka 2019.
Svein Vigeland Rottem, Senior Researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, is one of Norway’s leading researchers on the Arctic Council. (Photo: Trine Jonassen)

The opinions expressed here belongs to the author and do not represent the views of High North News. 

In November 2022, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt received a letter from her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, proposing a ministerial meeting in Salekhard, in North-Western Siberia, to be held on 11 May 2023.

The intention was to prepare for the upcoming Norwegian chairship of the Arctic Council, which has, for almost thirty years, served as the most important forum for international cooperation in the Arctic. Russia has had the chairship 2021—2023, to be succeeded by Norway in the course of 2023.  However, in March 2022, the seven Western Arctic Council member-states decided to pause their Council cooperation with Russia.

With its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia had violated international law and its pledges to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Moreover, it has not officially recognized the existence of a Ukrainian state or nation. For moral as well as political reasons, this was bound to have consequences.

Indeed, the response of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the letter from Lavrov was hardly surprising: a top-level ministerial meeting was – and remains – a political impossibility. So, what to do?

A legal, diplomatic and political dilemma.

Complex tangle

On March 28, Norway is to present its priorities to the Arctic Council in Tromsø, in preparation for assuming the chairship in May.

For the past 15 years, the foreign ministers of the Council’s member-states have traditionally met in a suitable venue north of the Arctic Circle, to reaffirm the importance of the Council. That such a meeting will not be held this year represents a legal, diplomatic and political dilemma.

However, this is not the first time that a ministerial meeting is held without ministers present, as the Arctic states may be represented at the civil service level. That is the intention this year, although the exact level is yet to be determined.

In all the Arctic capitals, intense efforts are now underway, seeking a solution to make the transfer of chairship acceptable to all the Arctic states. A definitive answer seems unlikely before the beginning of May. Indeed, the Council now finds itself at the edge of a dangerous cliff.

It would be a catastrophe for the Arctic indigenous groups.

Indigenous voices are heard 

It is important for the Arctic Council to survive this crisis, for three reasons.

Firstly, when the Council was established in Ottawa in September 1996, the eight Arctic states did something unprecedented: they invited representatives of the region’s indigenous groups as permanent participants.

These representatives lack decision-making powers, but sit at the table with the other members, taking part in discussions when decisions are to be taken. Moreover, they are heard – a unique situation in international cooperation otherwise.

If the Arctic Council fails to survive, this unique construction will unravel, and that would be a catastrophe for the Arctic indigenous groups. Their possibilities of influencing and being heard in discussions concerning the future of their Arctic homeland will disappear.

 The Arctic Council is a unique producer of valuable knowledge.

Crucial knowledge

Secondly, the Arctic Council, with its various working groups, is a unique producer of valuable knowledge and insights.

Over the course of three decades, researchers and members of the civil service in the Arctic states have, established networks and gathered information that has served to underpin national-level administration as well as international convention work.

Thanks to these efforts, the world has come to realize the enormous climatic and environmental consequences facing the Arctic states – as evident in the UN Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued on 20 March. Without solid knowledge it is impossible to take well-founded decisions for tackling these challenges.

If the Arctic Council fails to survive this crisis, the web of carefully built networks will collapse, and cannot be re-built overnight. Those who disagree with this view cannot realize how long it takes for an institution to build up the credibility and power necessary for it be heard.

Today it may seem naive – but what are the alternatives?

Common challenges remain

Thirdly: there will come times after this.

Today’s Arctic Council is a product of the final years of the Cold War. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held his famous Murmansk speech in October 1987, it was precisely the possibility for Arctic cooperation that was emphasized.

In the Council, all Arctic states share common challenges and have a common interest in finding solutions. However, during the summer of 2022, work in the Council started, without Russian participation.

Today it may seem naive to hold that cooperation with Russia can again become possible – but what are the alternatives?

The climate and environmental challenges in the Arctic will not disappear of their own accord: cooperation is essential. Russia covers half the territory of the Arctic, and there were signs of growing awareness of climate issues among Russian decisionmakers until the events of 24 February. However, the door must be kept ajar, to enable Russian participation when this becomes politically and morally possible.

All the Arctic states – including Russia – must set aside petty ambitions.

Must do their utmost

We need to understand what the Arctic Council, and what it can do.

Then we will recognize that the Arctic states must do their utmost to avoid destroying something that has taken 30 years to build up.

All the Arctic states – including Russia – must set aside their petty ambitions and find a solution acceptable to all.

This is more than a question of the future of the Arctic as such: it also concerns how the world is to meet the global environmental and climate challenges of today – and tomorrow.

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