The what and the how of the Arctic Council - Edu Arctic

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How did the Arctic Council come into being? As all enthusiasts of polar regions surely know, the Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean, the islands and archipelagos located in the Arctic seas, and the northern edges of North America, Asia and North-eastern Europe.

At the same time, according to the norms of international law, the Arctic covers two types of areas. The first type includes territories outside the jurisdiction of any country, which is to say, the ice-bound central part of the Arctic Ocean recognized as international waters. The other type comprises land and marine areas of countries bordering the Arctic Ocean. These include Norway, Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark (which holds sovereignty over Greenland), Iceland, as well as the territories of Sweden and Finland.

All these countries are bound by a network of long-standing relationships, which go back to the Age of Exploration and have been shaped by the conquest and internal colonization of indigenous peoples of the Arctic as well as by repeated attempts to tap into the abundant natural resources of the Far North. Since the middle of the 20th century, the Arctic has had considerable military and geopolitical significance, which made the region  the coldest of all Cold War fronts where the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc clashed. Just as every winter has its spring, however, at the end of the 1980s  the tension between the Arctic States slowly eased. Mutual hostility was soon replaced with attempts to combine efforts for, above all, the protection of the Arctic’s fragile environment. It was at this point that the Arctic ceased to divide the East from the West and instead became an area for bilateral and multilateral collaboration.

The key body to facilitate this collaboration was the Arctic Council, officially set up by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996. Even though the Council resembles an international organization, it is in fact no more than a high-level intergovernmental forum. It aims to promote, enhance and coordinate collaboration among the eight Arctic states, with the involvement of Arctic indigenous peoples and other inhabitants of the region. It is worth noting that including the representatives of indigenous communities in international negotiations was and still is quite extraordinary. Even though they do not take part in the votes, they have nonetheless been given a say and can therefore affect the Council’s decisions. All decisions of the Arctic Council must be made unanimously by all member states after being carefully consulted with the native inhabitants of the Far North.

The functioning of the Arctic Council is based on voluntary participation and provision of resources by the Arctic states, which means that the Arctic Council has no financial resources of its own and does not impose compulsory membership fees. It does, however, have a complex structure, including the so-called working groups and, since 2013, a permanent secretariat based in Trømso, while its internal regulations are continually developed. The scope of activity of the Arctic Council was defined by the Ottawa Declaration and includes virtually all common issues of the Arctic, with special focus  on sustainable development and environmental protection, but clearly excluding all matters of military nature.


Who takes part in the work of the Arctic Council?

The Arctic Council comprises participants of three different categories: (1) member states, which means the eight Arctic states, (2) permanent participants, which is to say, six organizations representing the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and (3) observers, meaning a diverse group of several dozen entities including non-Arctic states as well as global and regional inter-governmental, inter-parliamentary and non-governmental organizations. In 1996–2013, the list of the Arctic Council observers included six non-Arctic states (France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Great Britain), nine international political organizations and eleven non-governmental organizations. In 2013, it was expanded to include six additional countries: China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy, while in 2017 the observer status was also granted to Switzerland.

As the name suggests, the role of the Arctic Council observers is mainly to observe the Council's work and present their opinion in working group discussions. It is worth mentioning that a given country or organization can enjoy the status of an observer only as long as it does not engage in activity which goes against the principles held by the Council and as long as the Arctic states agree that the collaboration should continue. If any of the member states voices its opposition against such collaboration, the status of an observer is withdrawn. The observers are generally obliged to: (1) accept and support the objectives of the Council as defined in the Ottawa Declaration, (2) recognize the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the member states in the Arctic, (3) recognize that an extensive legal framework applies to the Arctic Ocean, including most of all the Law of the Sea, and that this framework provides a solid foundation for responsible management of this ocean, (4) respect the values, interests, culture and traditions of indigenous Arctic peoples and other inhabitants of the Arctic, (5) demonstrate political willingness and financial capability to support the work of the permanent participants and indigenous Arctic peoples, (6) demonstrate own Arctic interests and expertise relevant to the work of the Council, (7) demonstrate a specific interest and ability to contribute to the work of the Council, including through partnership with member states and permanent participants and through bringing the issues of the Arctic to global decision-making entities.


What does the work of the Arctic Council look like?

The structure of the Arctic Council consists of three basic levels: (1) political – ministerial meetings, (2) executive – meetings of Senior Arctic Officials from Arctic States’ Ministries of Foreign Affairs (SAO) and (3) working – working groups and task forces.

The highest form of political relationships within the Arctic Council are ministerial meetings held at the end of every two-year period of chairmanship. These are generally attended by ministers of foreign affairs, ministers of environment or other officials specializing in issues currently at hand. They make decisions regarding the approval and implementation of submitted projects and, if need be, approve new participants.

The meetings of Senior Arctic Officials, on the other hand, usually take place twice a year. The attending diplomats supervise the progress made by the Arctic Council, prepare ministerial meetings, serve as liaison between ministers and working groups, and translate the results of research projects into political objectives which are then considered and approved (or not) by the ministers.

The key element of the Arctic Council is no doubt the six working groups and various task forces, appointed to complete specific tasks set by the ministers. The six permanent working groups of the Arctic Council include: the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), the Emergency Prevention Preparedness and Response (EPPR), the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) and the Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP).


What are the Arctic Council Working Groups busy with?

The primary focus of AMAP is monitoring and assessment of environmental pollution and climate change in the Arctic. The working group prepares independent, science-based and peer-reviewed analyses which provide a reliable basis for decision-making and developing appropriate policies.

PAME is responsible for monitoring and research projects concerning the protection and sustainable use of the Arctic Ocean, with additional focus on policy measures implemented in response to environmental change triggered by both land- and sea-based activity. In other words, PAME assesses global, regional and national political, legal and other initiatives which may have impact on the marine environment of the Arctic. Besides, it develops and coordinates strategic plans, programmes, assessments and guidelines to complement legal arrangements which are already in place.

CAFF provides a platform facilitating effective cooperation among researchers and experts in the field of biological diversity and enabling, among others, analyses and information exchange on management techniques and regulatory regimes of species and habitats found in the Arctic. This makes it possible for the Arctic states to take collective, science-based and more conscious action in the context of climate change and the economic development of the area.

The primary focus of EPPR, on the other hand, is to enhance the potential and cooperation with respect to the prevention and response in environmental emergencies, accidents and search-and-rescue activities (SAR) in the Arctic. EPPR is not responsible for responding to emergencies at the operational level, but serves as a mechanism for the exchange of information on best practices and projects aimed at protecting the Arctic environment against the risk of pollution, various disasters and catastrophes.

The work of SDWG addresses the human aspect of the Arctic, with its main focus on planning and executing projects aimed at providing practical know-how and advancing sustainable development of the region. Their projects strive to improve social, economic and environmental conditions which the inhabitants of the Arctic live in. The main topics on SDWG’s agenda include: sustainable economic development, education, cultural heritage, health care, infrastructure (transport, sanitation, access to fresh water), urban development, and social inequalities.

The prime task undertaken by ACAP is to support the Arctic states in their efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions and pollution constituting a hazard to human health and the well-being of the environment. To do so, the group develops pilot projects aimed at, for example, reducing persistent organic pollutants (known as POPs), improving waste management, limiting the amount of marine litter (plastics, including microplastics, and dangerous chemical substances) and short-lived climate pollutants (such as black carbon and methane).


What makes the efforts of the Arctic Council important?

The Arctic Council working groups and task forces are made up of experts from specialized government institutions and ministries as well as scientists, all of whom are appointed by the Council’s member states. Their work is, to a great extent, to collect and synthetize scientific data, and to produce comprehensive reports which are then presented to diplomats and politicians from the Arctic states. These reports provide not only a reliable assessment of the current state of affairs, but also a range of recommendations, which inform international and local political decisions. Occasionally, as was the case with the 2004 report on climate change in the Arctic, these documents generate increased international interest in the Far North, as well as complement scientific knowledge with empirical, methodological and theoretical information. It might therefore be said that scientific collaboration and science diplomacy are the motors of the Arctic Council, while effective communication between researchers, experts, diplomats and politicians, and consequently – the ability to translate scientific data into political decisions, form the underlying mechanism thanks to which the institution has been functioning successfully for over two decades.

It is worth pointing out that the fundamental principle behind the cooperation carried out by the Arctic Council is that all its decisions are taken by consensus. This principle applies at all levels of cooperation and in all types of meetings. Such an approach has an obvious advantage as all decisions reached by the participants are unanimously approved and thus eagerly and fully implemented (although it may also happen that crucial topics are disregarded due to a single objection).

What is more, the Arctic Council is gradually becoming a forum for negotiating legally-binding agreements between its members. Until the year 2022, the Council helped to formulate: (1) Agreement on cooperation on aeronautical and maritime search and rescue in the Arctic, (2) Agreement on cooperation on marine oil pollution preparedness and response in the Arctic, and (3) Agreement on enhancing international Arctic scientific cooperation, all of which were signed during ministerial meetings.

Joint projects and programmes stimulate and enhance cooperation among government representatives, scientists, indigenous Arctic peoples and all interested in the fate of the Arctic. They facilitate the common understanding of Arctic issues, collaborative learning and the creation of a shared Arctic identity. Moreover, being able to assess the situation based on collectively acquired, well-founded knowledge plays a significant role in preventing misunderstandings in political activity. Looking at the Arctic Council from the perspective of the previous 25 years on its activity, there is no doubt that the knowledge it generates leads to essential changes in the Arctic and outside of it, mainly by arousing global interest in the topic of climate change in the Far North and its far-reaching consequences.


What happened in March 2022 and what will become of the Arctic Council?

For over a quarter of a century the Arctic Council served as an example of effective cooperation among countries which often differed or even competed politically and economically in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, everything changed in February 2022, when Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine rendered further cooperation impossible.

A few days after the outbreak of war, seven out of eight member states of the Arctic Council – the only exception being Russia, which currently holds chairmanship in the Council ( from May 2021 until May 2023) – condemned Russia’s invasion on Ukraine and decided to temporarily boycott the meetings, which should be held in Russia. Their decision was based on the premise that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine constituted a flagrant violation of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which underpin the work of the Arctic Council. Russian diplomacy responded by calling the decision “regrettable” and voiced its conviction that the Arctic should remain an area of peace with the activity of the Arctic Council unaffected by “the spill-over effect of any extraregional events”. At the same time, the Kremlin was warned that a temporary freeze on Council activity would “inevitably lead to the accumulation of risks and challenges to soft security in the region”. At the beginning of June, after several weeks of international negotiations and debate in the public space, the seven Arctic states announced that they intended to resume their work, albeit on a limited scale, or – to be more specific – on projects which did not require Russia’s involvement. It is hard to say at the moment what this will look like in practice. All we can do is hope that the present turmoil will not undo the Council’s to-date achievements and that soon enough the forum will once again embody mutual trust and respect indispensable for genuine cooperation.

Text: dr hab. Michał Łuszczuk, English translation: Barbara Jóźwiak