A Unique Case of Cooperation: 25 Years of the Arctic Council
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A Unique Case of Cooperation: 25 Years of the Arctic Council

By Rashmi BR
Doctoral student at School of Conflict and Security Studies, 
National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India.

A Unique Case of Cooperation: 25 Years of the Arctic Council

Image Attribute: Arctic Council

In September 1996, when the representatives of the eight Arctic countries signed the Ottawa Declaration, giving rise to a new chapter in regional cooperation, lest one would have anticipated the success that the Arctic Council has achieved in 25 years. The Council’s journey from the “Ottawa Declaration” to the “Arctic Council Strategic Plan 2021-2030”, is unique and a model that carries the label of complex interdependence proudly.

The Beginnings


When the erstwhile Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s speech at Murmansk in 1987 called for the Arctic to become a “zone of peace”, the already growing idea of Arctic cooperation was re-affirmed. It was a classic case of cooperation during the Cold War, a time when the two blocs locked their horns and engaged in proxy wars across the globe. The two superpowers along with six other Arctic states, sitting at the negotiating table for the Rovaniemi Process, resulted in the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1991, a precursor to the Arctic Council, that would be established five years later at Ottawa. 

25 years of the Council: Achievements 


Since 1996, despite being away from the ‘limelight’ of international relations, the Council has been raising the Arctic voice on global platforms. The landmark studies the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment have been considerably influential internationally. The Council’s initiatives on marine pollution, search and rescue and oil spills are much appreciated. The work of the Task Forces and Working Groups ensures that the Arctic Council is no talk-only show, rather a task-oriented organization that prioritizes implementation. 

It may be noted that actors other than states also have a crucial role to play in the projects and tasks undertaken. When Mary Simon, the then President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council strongly remarked at the AEPS preparatory meeting at Yellowknife, that “if we cannot get in now, we will probably never get in”, she spoke on the behalf of all the indigenous people who stood their ground to be included in the Council’s decision-making process (Source: ‘Pathways’, Arctic Council, May 2021). Multiple rounds of negotiations have now made it the most unique platform, where the indigenous people can sit at the table with state representatives as Permanent Participants and not mere observers of the proceedings. 

The Arctic Council proceedings are devoid of any discussions on geopolitical and security issues, as mandated by the Ottawa Declaration. In a way, it has successfully brought out the ability of states to deliberate upon issues that are outside the purview of politics. Often, security issues can negatively affect the cooperation and working of the organization. SAARC is a classic example, where the organization falls flat in front of complex relations in South Asia. Though South Asia and the Arctic are incomparable in terms of security issues, the fact that the Arctic Council has managed to keep aside the geopolitical rivalry of the states even after the Crimean annexation in 2014, speaks volumes about the nature of regional governance that has come to shape the Arctic. In the words of Sergey Lavrov, the Chair of the Council, “…despite the complexities in global affairs, interstate relations in high latitudes continue to develop in a constructive manner… and is largely responsible to due the work of the Arctic Council.” 

Challenges Ahead


As a rapidly changing region, the Arctic faces new challenges on all fronts, so does the Arctic Council, leading to calls for reformation and reassessment of the organizational structure. 

The forum has a system of rotating chairmanship where each of the eight states leads the Council as the ‘Chair’ for two years. With each Chair introducing different priorities, there is a lack of continuity in project implementation. The Strategic Plan, trying to address this, has underlined crucial priorities of the Arctic region as a whole, guiding the Chairmanships towards continuity. 

With regards to the structure, one of the areas of focus must be, defining the role of observers. Though they are a part of the Working Groups, there is scope for clarity and the ways in which they can further contribute. Additionally, there is no Working Group that is addressing climate change, though there are multiple components taken by every group or task force. A coherent understanding of climate change in the Arctic is the need of the hour. However, climate change as a subject is tricky and has seen states’ changing/dwindling commitments. The Finnish Chairmanship ended in 2019 without a final declaration thanks to the US’s strong opposition to the inclusion of the phrase ‘climate change’ in the document. 

Finally, there are debates about the legal status of the Council, that it is not formal, and hence the states have no obligation on them to adhere and implement. However, a formal organization would not have allowed the indigenous people to participate in the manner they do at the Council now. Though it is not a treaty-based formal organization, the structural fluidity has helped it bring together different kinds of participants, which makes it stand apart. 

Conclusion


In a time when there are serious questions raised on multilateralism and institutions, the Arctic Council stands out as an organization that prioritizes cooperation and dialogue more than any of its counterparts and even closest neighbors like the European Union. The coming days pose a serious threat to the Arctic climate, bringing in new challenges on socio-economic and political fronts, making it even more necessary to strengthen the Council and use that as a predominant platform for further cooperation.

About the Author:

Rashmi Ramesh (ORCID ID: 0000-0003-1597-6375) is a Ph.D. scholar with the Science Diplomacy Programme, School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, INDIA.

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