Continuity or Reform? The Future of the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council in its current set-up of Arctic member states, permanent participants, and observers. Are the Council’s form and functions future proof? (Photo: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)
The Arctic Council in its current set-up of Arctic member states, permanent participants, and observers. Are the Council’s form and functions future proof? (Photo: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)

What would an ideal Arctic Council could look like if it were written today? How would the Ottawa Declaration (the founding document of the Arctic Council from 1996) look? Panelists at an Arctic Circle breakout session tried to answer this.

All speakers agreed that the Council is definitely a success story in Arctic cooperation. The three agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council since the early 2010s are a clear sign that the Council is capable of addressing gaps in regulation.

Natalia Loukacheva, Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Governance and Law at the University of Northern British Columbia, Canada, suggested that the Council could even take on the negotiations for further agreements. As a concrete example, she mentioned plastic and marine litter, which is a topic the Arctic Council Working Group “Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF)” is already working on. Further, such an agreement would fill an important gap since there is currently no legally binding agreement on this issue for the Arctic.


Formal international organisation?

All speakers mentioned the possibility that the Council may evolve into a full-fledged international organization with legal personality. The establishment of a permanent secretariat in 2013 is already a sign of this development. “This may come along with further developments in terms of funding and binding decisions”, added Maria Ackrén from the University of Greenland.


Shortcomings in the Council’s Structure

Annika Nilsson from the Stockholm Environment Institute highlighted the fact that it appears strange to have sustainable development and environmental protection as two separate pillars of the Arctic Council since environmental protection is usually part of sustainable development. “We need a more integrated notion of sustainable development, and the two concepts should not be in contrast to each other but rather integrated as a whole”, she said.

Heather Exxner-Pirot, Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook, criticized the Council’s Working Groups as silos that do not communicate well with one another and put too little effort in terms of impact. She further sees an imbalance in the Working Groups with most of them addressing environmental protection and just one explicitly dealing with sustainable development. “If we were to establish the Working Groups in 2018, they would surely look different than today”, she insisted. “We need to ask what are the key issues we need knowledge about today and then build the working Group structure around and across these”, she concluded.


Accountability and Funding

All panelists mentioned the lacking accountability of the Council due to its two-year chairmanship structure with different foci and programmes every two ears. Connected to this are worries about the limited implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of Arctic Council reports.

One comment from the audience highlighted the need for more reliable, transparent, and practical funding, which is currently rather on a voluntary basis for the Arctic states. This would especially ease the struggle of the Permanent Participants to keep up with the burgeoning activities of the Council. Increased efficiency could also be achieved by combining the various secretariats now in place. Another idea focused on introducing a co-chairmanship arrangement to bring more consistency and continuity to the Arctic Council agenda.


Imbalances within the Arctic Council

Ackrén shared her observations about imbalances and club tendencies within the Arctic Council. The clearest sign of this is the differentiation between the eight Arctic states (A8) and the five Arctic coastal states (A5). Further, “Norway is the main contributor to the Arctic Council Secretariat, and Norway and Denmark are the biggest funders of the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat”, she explained. Singapore, an observer state to the Council, provides financing and support for indigenous peoples in the Council, such as through postgraduate scholarships within the Singapore-Arctic Council Permanent Participants Cooperation Package.

“Having established English as the lingua franca of the Council has created a certain club function”, Ackrén further elaborates. Finally, the two-year chairmanships are a national affair of the respective Arctic state that has the chairmanship.


Gaps: resource extraction and economic development

Annika Nilsson from the Stockholm Environment Institute identified issues related to resource extraction as gaps that the Arctic Council has thus far not addressed. “The Council has not answered what will come after resource extraction in Arctic regions since extraction of finite resources is per se not sustainable”, she explained. Further topics where the Council is thus far silent on concerns the mitigation of climate change, i.e. there are no discussions about greenhouse gas emissions or about the transition to a post-petroleum future.

Similarly, Heather Nicol from Trent University stated that there is consensus in the Council about the environment but no consensus over economic development. Rather, through the creation of the Arctic Economic Council, the Arctic Council has defined economic development as a problem to be solved by business. This is, however, problematic, since the goals of the Arctic Economic Council seem to be somewhat different to the Council’s goal of sustainable development.


Difficulties for reform; areas of no reform

According to Exxner-Pirot, one difficulty in trying to improve the Council is that it is a very good and generally well-functioning body. “So we do not want to mess with it too much in the sense of reforming it to the worse”, she explained. Loukacheva added that the Council has indeed become a victim of its own success and publicity since many voices want the Council to address all possible topics. But it is just good and fair to take certain issues outside the Council, like for example fisheries. She advised against any radical changes but rather to analyse and value what we have in the current form of the Council and make careful decisions about any reform.

Exxner-Pirot voiced the preference for keeping military security off the Council’s agenda. Others mentioned that there are good reasons for keeping the Council a soft power body. The current structure, i.e. no headquarters, no treaty, and no big budget, would make the Council resilient, flexible, and adaptable to changing geopolitical situations.


Today’s tasks: clarify roles, identify priorities, and ensure capacities

Jennifer Spence from Carleton University gave a plan for tasks the Council faces for preparing for the future. First, the Council needs to clarify its role(s) since there are many different understandings among different groups as to what it means for the Arctic Council to be the “preeminent forum for addressing Arctic issues”. This includes considerations of continuity as a soft law body or of change to an international organization. “Both options should be discussed and its pros and cons put on the table”, Spence highlighted.

Second, the Council needs to identify policy priorities. “We need to put bounds on what the Arctic Council can achieve”, Spence said. Many topics currently abound that the Council already addresses or could address, ranging from pollution, capacity building, business, health, resources to biodiversity and economics. “We need to accept that there will be gaps but we thus need to discuss who should fill these gaps if it is not the Arctic Council, such as on economic development and security”, Spence concluded. Finally, the Council needs to make sure that it has the necessary capacity and resources to fulfil its tasks and to embed this in a process of strategic planning.