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The Arctic Council at 25: Creating Connections in a Polarized World

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The following is a guest post by David Revzin, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. He is a current graduate student of Library and Information Science at Simmons University in Boston, MA.

September 19, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum comprised of the eight countries with territories within the Arctic Circle, as well as representatives of Arctic Indigenous peoples. The country member states are Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (Denmark, Greenland, Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Formally founded in 1996 by the Ottawa Declaration, the Arctic Council serves the region by seeking solutions to shared concerns pertaining to the northernmost parts of the planet through “cooperation, coordination, and interaction.” To carry out these objectives, the council maintains an active dialogue among public and private sector entities, including working groups engaged in ongoing monitoring and research projects.

This blog post provides an overview of Arctic governance and the council’s work in environmental and geopolitical contexts defined by large-scale challenges and rapid changes in a globalized, interconnected world.

Arctic Administrative Areas map. Map: Arctic Centre, University of Lapland. Credit for the border data: Runfola D, Anderson A, Baier H, Crittenden M, Dowker E, Fuhrig S, et al. (2020) geoBoundaries: A global database of political administrative boundaries. PLoS ONE 15(4): e0231866.

The Arctic Region

The Arctic Circle, located at approximately 66°33′ North Latitude, is an “imaginary boundary” in the northernmost part of the planet. The area above this boundary is commonly called the Arctic. Within this region, there is at least one day a year in which the sun is visible above the horizon for a full 24-hour period, resulting in daylight at midnight, and at least one day a year in which the sun is below the horizon for a full 24-hour period, resulting in darkness at noon.

Although geographically isolated, the Arctic stands at the center of myriad universal concerns for the present and future of the planet. As governments, institutions, and individuals feel forces of globalization and climate change with greater intensity, this northernmost region of Earth represents an interconnectedness of the natural, social, and political dynamics which define and anticipate many coming obstacles and opportunities in a shared global future.

Black and white photo looking up at glacier/mountain of ice.
Glacier. [between ca. 1900 and ca. 1930] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
The idea of the Arctic can conjure images seemingly at the boundary between fact and fiction: ethereal northern lights and striking glacial landscapes; polar bears and reindeer; a never-setting summertime sun and unending wintertime darkness. Despite occupying somewhat of a mythical place in our minds (its most famous fictional residents are a certain gift-giving old man and his team of flying reindeer, after all), the Arctic is not an abstraction, instead representing many concrete common global concerns.

The Arctic has a population of approximately four million people, including Indigenous peoples and those living in areas under the jurisdiction of one of the eight nations whose territories reach into the northernmost parts of the planet.

As is the case elsewhere on Earth, changing climate and shifting geopolitical dynamics combine to create an uncertain future for the high north. Long marked by a generally cooperative international governance, the region occupies an increasingly prominent position in the global consciousness, creating unique challenges which call on countries to reassess and reaffirm approaches to regional governance. Growing recognition of the need to work together to tackle regional challenges has brought renewed focus to the unique structure of shared governance in the region.

A Unique Geopolitical Project

The countries with jurisdiction over territories within the Arctic Circle have individual webpages that detail their arctic population, involvement, and accomplishments on the Council: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Each of these eight Arctic countries has laws and policies regarding the portion of the region under its authority, while international agreements, laws, and treaties comprise a collaborative, cooperative governance of the area around the North Pole and the surrounding Arctic Ocean.

Additionally, Arctic Indigenous peoples’ organizations have status as Permanent Participants, holding “full consultation rights in connection with the council’s negotiations and decisions.” Together, the six Permanent Participants form the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat, a forum for “creating opportunities for the Permanent Participants to present their causes, support the provision of necessary information and materials, and communicate information about their work in the Arctic Council and beyond.”

All eight of the Arctic countries have official, published policies outlining their foreign relations objectives in the region. In addition to these eight countries, Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have official political standing as members of the council. Several non-Arctic countries have also expressed interest in the region in recent years, leading to an increasing number of observer states on the Arctic Council. Non-governmental actors serve the Arctic policy process primarily through three specific roles: agenda-setter, implementer, and watchdog.

An Innovative Approach

Chairing of the Arctic Council is cyclical, rotating among the Arctic countries who then set the agenda and tone while retaining the chair position for a period of two years. The cycle began with Canada from 1996-1998 and is now in its second rotation, as all Arctic countries have held the position at least once. Most recently, Iceland passed the gavel to Russia, which assumed the chairmanship in May 2021.

Arctic governance is a complex arrangement of international, regional, and local institutions, agreements, and regulations either specific or relevant to the Arctic. Arctic-specific agreements refer to those explicitly pertaining to part or all of the Arctic region, while Arctic-relevant agreements and regulations are those not aimed at the area but impacting the Arctic due to regulatory content. Additionally, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international regulations governing the rights of coastal countries, and the various achievements of the Arctic Council, are critical components of Arctic governance and cornerstones of the mutual agreements central to the overall project of maintaining peace and prosperity in the region and beyond.

As a forum intended to foster ongoing dialogue among Arctic countries, the Arctic Council does not possess its own budget for projects and programs. This means that any initiatives of the council are funded by one or more of the Arctic countries, or by other national or international partners and sponsors. As outlined in the Ottawa Declaration, the mandate of the Arctic Council explicitly excludes topics relating to national defense and military security.

Additionally, the Arctic Council does not have jurisdictional authority and therefore cannot implement or enforce any guidelines or recommendations of other governing bodies. Regulatory responsibility remains solely with the individual Arctic countries, when applicable, or other international governing bodies.

Various institutions such as the International Maritime Organization and regional fisheries management organizations comprise the Arctic governance structure today. Rapid environmental and social changes in the high northern latitudes (as elsewhere in the world) put pressure on all Arctic institutions to adapt and innovate to meet the challenges of globalization and geopolitical uncertainty.

Arctic Council Accomplishments

For 25 years the Arctic Council has promoted collaborative partnerships and the creation of various working groups to conduct ecological, environmental, and social scientific research, resulting in many comprehensive assessments on an array of topics. To organize and share these reports, the Arctic Council maintains and updates an online repository of key documents relevant to the council and the region. Additionally, the council is the central place for Arctic countries to discuss ideas, issues, and legal arrangements. Some noteworthy accomplishments since the Arctic Council’s creation in 1996 include the 2011 Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic; the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic; and the 2017 Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.

Twenty-five years since the founding of the Arctic Council, the council’s continued dedication to “cooperation, coordination, and interaction” serves as the foundation for big-picture goals of global governance and stands as a testament to the growing recognition of the universal impacts of environmental change across national, political, and regional borders.

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