25 years of peace and cooperation – Highlights from Arctic Frontiers

On the occasion of the Arctic Council’s anniversary, the Arctic Frontiers 2021 virtual conference hosted a high-level dialogue on the Council’s track record of 25 years of successful circumpolar cooperation on 3rd February. On the panel were the current Chair of the Arctic Council, Iceland’s Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, Ambassador-at-Large and Senior Arctic Official of the Russian Federation, Nikolay Korchunov, and Gwich’in Council International Co-Chair, Edward Alexander. Their reflections on the history and future of the Arctic Council are summarized here.

In September 1996, representatives of the eight states with territories north of the Arctic Circle signed a document that would shape the future intergovernmental collaboration in the High North: the Ottawa Declaration. A turning point in the countries’ common Arctic history that was shaped for decades by the tensions of the Cold War. The ambition underlying the establishment of the Arctic Council in Ottawa in 1996, was to strengthen circumpolar cooperation in the Arctic region in order to prevent environmental degradation and to ensure a sustainable future for the people of the Arctic.

Screenshot of the Arctic Frontiers panel

A focused mandate

Over the past 25 years, the Council has successfully strengthened international cooperation and addressed current and emerging issues in the region. Yet, the success has not been a given. It builds on the substantial investment of time, resources and commitment by the Arctic States and the Indigenous peoples’ organizations that have a seat at the table as Permanent Participants of the Council. It is also the result of a conscious decision to focus its mandate on environmental protection and sustainable social and economic development, while excluding issues related to military security.

“I think our shared perspectives on environmental protection and the well-being of the people of the Arctic have actually unified us in our commitment to a well-functioning cooperation”, stated Minister Søreide. Gwich’in Council International Co-Chair Edward Alexander agreed, adding: “Because the military issues are excluded, we are actually able to focus on peaceful interventions, on things that we can talk in common about, and it also allows for Indigenous peoples to be at the table and to participate at a much higher level.”

Adaptability and proactiveness

Another key to the Council’s success is its adaptive format, underlined the Russian Senior Arctic Official Ambassador Nikolay Korchunov. “The internationally legally binding agreements that were negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council clearly show that we have our finger on emerging challenges and we should continue to adapt to challenges in a proactive manner”, said Ambassador Korchunov.

The Council’s work during the ongoing pandemic that is forcing the whole world to rethink and reinvent old norms, is an example of the Council’s resilience and adaptability. “Despite the unexpected circumstances caused by Covid-19, the Council’s day-to-day work has remained largely unaffected. It was a pleasure to see that the Council’s Working Groups have been able to continue their projects and that Permanent Participants have been able to

Minister Søreide greets Chief Gary Harrison from the Arctic Athabaskan Council at the 2019 Ministerial meeting

Trustful relationships

That the Council’s work was able to continue almost uninterruptedly is also the result of the trustful relationships that Senior Arctic Officials and Indigenous peoples have created over the years. “In the ancient times all creatures – giant eagles, bears and beavers – spoke the same language. Today, we do not share the same language, but we all come together at the Arctic Council: States, Permanent Participants, Observers to speak and listen with common concern. A common concern for a livable and peaceful world we wish to pass on to the next generation”, said Edward Alexander.

Whether climate change or pollution issues, biodiversity decline or elevated suicide rates, the common concerns are too broad to be addressed by one country or people alone. Scientists and knowledge holders from Arctic States, Permanent Participant organizations and the Council’s Observers therefore build a strong network of experts that jointly addresses challenges and opportunities in the Arctic. This circumpolar knowledge generation has proven to be a confidence building measure in itself and one that has drawn attention from across the globe.

“Why are you so successful?” is a question that Ambassador Anton Vasiliev heard time and again during his time as Russia’s Senior Arctic Official (2008 - 2014). In a pre-recorded statement shared during the anniversary panel, he expressed his views on the Council’s inclusive and trustful collaboration. “I think that many of the explanations of why the Arctic Council is so successful comes back to geography and very harsh realities. These harsh realities force people to help each other. And this, in my view, has shaped the relations of Arctic States in a certain way.”

Trust and personal relationships – and maybe shared geographies – are also the reason why Arctic cooperation has withstood tensions between its individual member states. “We have invested so much political capital and time in making this collaboration work – and it does. That is why the Arctic region is a very good example of how geopolitical tensions and insecurity elsewhere in the world have not translated to the Arctic. We cooperate closely and we find common solutions on issues that are important to solve for our inhabitants”, Minister Søreide stated.

An architecture for collaboration

The architecture for constructive and peaceful cooperation also builds on established national and international legal frameworks that have set clear rules for the governance of the region and for the collaboration with non-Arctic states and other stakeholders. “I don’t see that we need more governance bodies”, Minister Thórdarson noted. “This is not the wild North; we have international law. If we engage with those outside the Arctic in the way we agree on – low tension, sustainability, peace and international law – then it offers added value”. He emphasized that the Arctic Council is not an international super body, and one of the Council’s strengths is that it doesn’t pretend to be one. Nonetheless, the Council’s work and policy recommendations have influenced both international and national lawmaking.

Norway for example fosters a close relationship with its national Saami representation. This makes it easier, as Minister Søreide said, to build a bridge between the discussions in the Arctic Council and meaningful national policy making.

Building bridges

The bridge between the Council and Arctic inhabitants will be one main focus of the incoming Russian Chairmanship. “The Arctic Council is often associated with an exclusive club of experts and governmental representatives. We therefore consider it an important task to bring our work closer to the people of the Arctic”, said Ambassador Korchunov.

Where those bridges exist and where Permanent Participants are taking a lead, the benefits are tangible. “I have seen it time and again that the inclusion of Indigenous peoples has meant the difference between projects that are meaningful to people in the North opposed to those that are not. A lot of these projects become framed and centered around Northern issues and Northern people. That is what makes the Arctic Council relevant and connected to individual communities. That is one of the key strengths that often goes unnoticed”, Edward Alexander said.

Permanent Participants sit at the same table as the Foreign Ministers - here at the Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks (Edward Alexander to the right).

Going forward

Reflecting on the history and achievements of the Arctic Council also presented an opportunity for the panelists to look ahead and to listen to the voices of two youth representatives, Darling Anderson from the Aleut International Association and Olga Nikolaeva from RAIPON’s youth council. In their short pre-recorded interventions, they urged the Arctic Council to take up issues related to the preservation of Indigenous languages and cultures, as well as to enhance youth engagement.

Both topics are reflected in the upcoming Russian Chairmanship program and Ambassador Korchunov emphasized: “The 25th anniversary of the Arctic Council is not only an opportunity to take stock but also to outline ways forward on the basis of our shared goals and objectives. The dynamically changing environmental and geopolitical situation require Arctic States and likeminded countries to build an effective cooperative platform for responsible governance and work towards a broad partnership in the interest of sustainable development of the Arctic”.

Thus, 25 years after its establishment sustainable development remains at the core of the Council’s work and will continue to bring policy makers, Indigenous peoples, researchers, knowledge holders and increasingly Arctic youth together to find a common way towards a sustainably prosperous Arctic.