The USA has handed chairmanship of the Arctic Council over to Finland. The most important delivery of the US chairmanship (2015-2017) is a new international agreement on Arctic Science Cooperation. The agreement showcases an important development: over the past decade, a number of new agreements and initiatives for international cooperation in the Arctic have been negotiated.
Declining sea ice and expectations of increased economic activity in the Arctic Ocean are major forces driving development of new collaborative arrangements. An important early document is the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, where the central Arctic Ocean coastal states (United States, USA, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway and Russia) recalled that an extensive international legal framework applies to the Arctic Ocean and pledged to strengthen international cooperation.
Within the Arctic Council, three legally binding international agreements have been negotiated among its eight members over the past years. The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic was adopted by the Arctic Council in 2011 (in force 2013). Its purpose is to strengthen member state cooperation and coordination in search and rescue operations in the Arctic, and the parties commit to establish and maintain effective search and rescue services in their respective geographical areas.
A second agreement, Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response, was concluded in 2013 (in force 2016) and member states recently held the first meeting of parties in Oslo. The objective of this agreement is to strengthen cooperation, coordination and mutual assistance in oil pollution preparedness and response in the Arctic in order to protect the marine environment.
The third agreement, referred to at the outset here, seeks to enhance international scientific cooperation in order to further scientific knowledge about the Arctic. The agreement as such is about facilitating scientific collaboration, rather than science per se. It contains provisions on entry to and exit from Arctic areas, facilitating the movement of people, equipment and materials across borders as well as access to research infrastructure and facilities and data – all intended to reduce barriers to international cooperation.
In addition to these legally binding instruments, the member states of the Arctic Council have also developed a number of non-legally binding arrangements, pertaining to among other things ecosystem-based approaches (2013) and safety in Arctic oil- and gas operations (2015).
In addition to the agreements and arrangements developed in and negotiated by the Arctic Council, the past decade has witnessed a number of other initiatives:
In 2010, an initial meeting on fish stocks in the central Arctic Ocean was held in Oslo. The process eventually resulted in a 2015 declaration among the five coastal states on prevention of unregulated fishing in the high seas there. Since then, an extended process involving Japan, the Republic of Korea, China, Iceland and the EU has worked on a legally binding agreement seeking to prevent unregulated fishing in the high seas international waters in the central Arctic Ocean.
Another initiative is the "Polar Code", adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 2016. This is a legally binding agreement aiming to make shipping activities in polar waters more secure, including regulating ship construction, crew training, environmental aspects of operations and more. Yet another new initiative is the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, established among the coast guards of the Arctic countries in 2015. The Forum concerns practical and operational collaboration within search and rescue and information sharing.
The rapid development of regulatory instruments concerning the Arctic represents a substantial strengthening of international cooperation in the region. The perhaps most important aspect is the fact that a growing number of legally binding instruments are specifically tailored to the Arctic. These agreements function within the context of the global, legal framework for the oceans based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The agreement facilitating scientific collaboration mentioned above explicitly takes into account the provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention on marine scientific research.
Also, a large number of international agreements apply to the Arctic, including global agreements on climate change and various forms of pollution.
Negotiation of such agreements is a recent development in the context of the Arctic Council. The Council itself is based on a non-binding declaration from 1996, addressing the need to cooperate on environmental and socioeconomic issues in the Arctic. The resulting circumpolar work on these issues, including comprehensive assessments of climate change, biodiversity, and economic activities such as shipping and oil and gas development, has heightened our understanding of the Arctic and the challenges facing this region. The continuous development of agreements and guidelines provides vital tools to address the challenges facing us in the future.