© Arctic Council

Observer Event on Arctic Governance: Opening remarks by the Arctic Council Chair

22 April 2021
In an effort to enhance engagement with Arctic Council Observers, the Icelandic Chairmanship organized an online Observer event on 21 April. The topic up for discussion was Arctic Governance. Governance in the Arctic is predominantly the responsibility of the Arctic States although many of the challenges the region is faced with are global in nature and addressing them calls for collaboration beyond that of the Arctic States. Climate change and plastic pollution are good examples of such issues. In light of all this, the event focused on the question: how could the Council further engage the Observers in its work, and what expertise and knowledge can the Observers bring to the Council to enhance Arctic governance? The event was opened by the Chair of the Arctic Council, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Development Cooperation and this was his opening address.

Dear Arctic friends and colleagues,

It gives me great pleasure to be with you here today at this Observer event on Arctic Governance. While only through the screen, I am happy to see you all again. We have become used to online meeting formats by now, but I think it is safe to say that we are all eager to have events like this one in person once again. Although the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt last year and forced us to rethink what we had taken for granted, we have managed to adapt to changed circumstances. We are still fighting the pandemic worldwide, but with vaccination programs in progress in most places we can be hopeful that our societies are slowly but surely moving towards normality again.

As most of you will know, one of the four priority areas of Iceland’s Chairmanship program is building a stronger Arctic Council. There are of course many ways to work towards that goal but enhancing cooperation with the Council’s Observers is an area which we have focused on throughout our Chairmanship. In an effort to establish an informal line of communication with the Observers, the Icelandic Chairmanship in January conducted short individual virtual meetings with the 19 Observers that were under review this year. Interest and appreciation were expressed by all involved and it is our hope that this initiative will be continued under the incoming Russian Chairmanship.

Inspired by the positive experience from the Observer review and from the SMM virtual series last year, we wanted to bring you all together here today to discuss Arctic governance.

There seems to be a widespread notion that governance in the Arctic is somehow different from other places on earth. It is true that the Arctic region is still one of the most pristine environments on this planet. However, that does not mean that the Arctic is a lawless “no man’s land”, or that there is some legal void in the region. On the contrary, the Arctic is regulated by the national laws of the eight Arctic States on land and within their territorial waters. Beyond that, there is an extensive network of international and regional agreements that provide the basis for governance in the Arctic. Here I would like to highlight the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides the architecture underpinning all ocean governance in the Arctic. Another important example that I want to mention is the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, that was signed in 2018.

For the past 25 years, the Arctic Council has provided the primary platform for addressing international issues in the region. It has from the beginning proved to be the most important circumpolar forum for the Arctic nations, the Permanent Participants as representatives of the Arctic Indigenous peoples and the growing number of Observers. It is my sincere hope that we will be able to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Arctic Council by adopting a Strategic Plan for the Council at the upcoming Ministerial Meeting in Reykjavík in May. The aim is to provide the Council with a long-term guidance to its work going beyond the usual two-year chairmanship cycle. This will be the first ever Strategic Plan for the Arctic Council and it has the potential to focus and improve the Council’s direction of work. I have been following closely the work of our Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participants on developing the plan and am impressed by their good progress.

International cooperation is vital to ensure sustainable development for the benefit of the Arctic inhabitants. It is important to us all that the Arctic remains a region of peace, stability, and constructive international cooperation. The Arctic Council’s mandate explicitly excludes military security, but the eight Arctic states have made a conscious effort to keep the Arctic a region of low-tension. So far, we have not let tensions elsewhere affect the good cooperation that prevails in the Arctic. If that changes, there is much more to lose than to gain. We may of course have our disagreements and differences, but ultimately, we all share the same goal and that is a peaceful, sustainable, and prosperous Arctic.

Dear friends,

I would like to use this opportunity to thank all of the Observers for their participation in the work of the Arctic Council and its Working Groups. Your contribution to scientific research and knowledge-building is invaluable, for the benefit of the region and beyond.

Even though the opportunities to meet in person during our two-year Chairmanship have been fewer than we would have liked, I want to thank you for your participation in the events that we have hosted, whether in person or online. Your contributions have been greatly appreciated, while we have adjusted to new ways of working.

In conclusion let me just say that I have already watched the excellent prerecorded presentations by our esteemed panelists, and I can surely say that you should have an interesting discussion on Arctic Governance here today. I know that you will be in the good hands of Halla Hrund Logadóttir, our moderator for today’s event, and who has just been appointed the next Director General of the National Energy Authority of Iceland. Congratulations Halla on your appointment and thank you all for participating in this event.