Op-ed: The Arctic Council, A Strengthening Descent From Pantheon to Agora

Eda Ayaydin, Arctic Council
Eda Ayaydin is aTeaching Fellow at the University of London Institute in Paris. (Photo: Private)

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

Every institution constructs its own legitimacy and importance. Its actions and discourse shape its role and significance. The Arctic Council has been experiencing a significant period of change since February 2022.

This period has revealed two noteworthy aspects: firstly, the Arctic Council is heavily state-centric despite having permanent members representing indigenous organizations as well. Secondly, it has demonstrated both the capability and will to endure challenging international political conditions.

Similar intergovernmental organizations have managed to survive and consolidated in difficult times, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), both regional organizations that withstood the Cold War.

In a historical context, the OSCE initially emerged as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1973 with a prominent role of the USSR, building solid bridge between two sides of the iron curtain. However, it underwent a name change in 1995 following the Paris Charter, becoming the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The specificity of the OSCE is its ability to resolve problems through silent diplomacy, working mainly with civil society at infranational and transnational level.

In 1998, Protocol No.11 replaced the original framework.

On the other hand, ever since the establishment of the ECtHR in 1959, the member states of the Council of Europe have embraced various Protocols to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Notably, in 1998, Protocol No.11 replaced the original framework, which consisted of a Court and a political Human Rights Commission convened intermittently by representatives from each country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The revised protocol introduced a permanent, single court, effectively eliminating the Commission's political role in filtering cases.

This pivotal change empowered applicants to directly submit their grievances to the Court, thereby ensuring the judiciary's independence from sovereign politics.

Both institutions, the OSCE and the ECtHR, have membership from Arctic states, with all Arctic states participating in the OSCE and Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland being parties in the ECHR. It is worth noting that the United States and Canada are not members of the ECtHR due to its focus on Europe.

However, Russia's membership in the organization ended in 2022 because of its aggressive attitude towards first Georgia then Ukraine, both members of the Council of Europe. Personally, watching the lowering of the Russian flag in front of the Council of Europe building in Strasbourg was an unforgettable memory marking a historic moment, similar to the fall of the Berlin wall.

This event sparked extensive debates about whether the Council's decision to isolate and punish Russia rather than engage in constructive dialogue would have yielded better results in addressing human rights violations within the country.

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It is intriguing to draw a comparison at this juncture with the Arctic Council in the frame of environmental justice, fortunately, the Arctic Council has not encountered a similar situation yet.

Collaboration persisted even during the tense period of the Cold War even if the level of cooperation varied under such circumstances. Therefore, the role and objectives of organizations hold great significance in determining the nature of their cooperation.

This is precisely why the discourse surrounding Norway's assumption of the chairship of the Arctic Council from Russia carries substantial importance.

During this transition, Norway’s Senior Arctic Official Morten Høglund emphasized the ambitions of the Norwegian chairship, focusing on key areas such as oceans, climate and environment, sustainable economic development, and the welfare of people residing in the North.

This discourse plays a crucial role in reaffirming the significance of the Arctic Council and placing emphasis on its environmental aspects which are foundational principles of the Council.

The recipe for progress entails increasing the dosage of supra-nationality.

The Arctic Council holds a significant position as a forum that grants indigenous organizations permanent membership, setting it apart from others. Building upon this foundation, the next phase could involve further development.

The recipe for progress entails increasing the dosage of supra-nationality (transfer of decision making process on some issues from the capitals to Tromsø) and transnationality (especially for indigenous peoples matters who are, by definition, transnational), while decreasing the dose of state centrism, which could open the door to addressing sub-national issues, or perhaps even infra-nationality involving, such as the OSCE, much more civil society and not exclusively indigenous peoples.

The importance of the Arctic extends beyond classic geopolitical considerations, such as its vast reserves of oil and gas and the emerging shipping routes. It holds significance in various other realms, including advancing science diplomacy, amplifying human rights advocacy, and engaging in discussions about transitioning from fossil fuels to green alternatives.

Along with these, institutes like The Arctic Institute in Washington are issuing calls to explore queer perspectives in the Far North, Rovaniemi's Arctic Center is facilitating dialogues on post-human dialogues while comparative steps are being taken in the realm of connecting the Arctic with the third Pole- Himalayan region.

In this context, the Arctic Council possesses the potential to assume the role of an agora, akin to the pivotal function performed by the agoras of ancient Greece. None of the capitals of Arctic states are located in the Arctic, but each of them has functional cities such as Rovaniemi, Tromsø or Anchorage.

Within the framework of widened decentralized cooperation -between cities, NGOs, private sector- the Arctic Council can serve as an agora, where discussion topics are expanded, and an Arctic agenda is formed.

This, in a way, shifts the axis of Arctic exceptionalism to a different point and can even build its own unique Arctic democracy, hopefully without falling to the Thucydides trap. The primary purpose of an agora is not to make decisions like pantheons, which bring together the heads of states (today’s gods) but rather to nurture open discussions.

Or, maybe, the 19th-century author might condense the present shift  more succinctly by stating, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. While the hoopla within the Arctic Council may not be in full swing at present, there exist compelling reasons why it possesses the capability to gather momentum and evolve into a vibrant platform for the region.

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