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Interview: Aleksi Härkönen, SAO for Finland

22 January 2015
Aleksi Härkönen, the recently-appointed Senior Arctic Official for Finland, spoke briefly to the ACS about his background and his thoughts on the work ahead of him.

Could you tell us a bit about your career and past positions in the Finnish MFA?

Before taking up my current position as Finland’s Arctic Ambassador, I served as Ambassador of Finland to Estonia for four years. Prior to that, I worked as Foreign Policy Adviser to the President of the Republic of Finland. In 2007-2009 I was the head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Chairmanship Task Force of Finland and Permanent Representative of Finland to the OSCE 2002 – 2007.

When thinking about your previous positions, have there been any cross-cutting topics with the Arctic?

Perhaps not topics that were directly related in terms of subject matter, but there were similarities when it comes to the working methods. In addition, both the previous President and the current President of the Republic are interested in Northern and Arctic affairs and follow them closely. Both Presidents have also been interested as well in the Sámi, the only indigenous people of the European Union. So thanks to my experience working in the President’s office, the issues that are pertinent for Northern Finland and the Sámi are familiar to me.

The OSCE did not have any direct linkages to the Arctic, but it is worth mentioning the working method, which is multilateral diplomacy with a rotating chairmanship along the same lines as in the Arctic Council.

When it comes to other Arctic-related connections, I could perhaps mention that in my free time I enjoy cross-country skiing and ice fishing.

What is ice fishing, could you say a bit more about that?

Ice fishing with a net is not a spontaneous hobby like fishing on ice with a rod. It includes careful planning: before the water freezes you have to install long sticks and a string between the sticks. The nets will be deployed underneath the ice using the string. Of course there are other ways to do ice fishing, but it is a definitely unique way to enjoy nature for those who love cold climate.

What elements of Arctic cooperation are, in your opinion, most important?

It’s important to note how quickly all the eight Arctic States agreed to cooperate in the early 90’s. What started as environmental protection - which was and still is the key point - has since that time rapidly expanded to also cover other areas of cooperation. Another extremely important element is the inclusion of the permanent participants since the establishment of the Arctic Council. On a global scale, this is unique and it is important to support this element of the Council’s work.

How would you describe Finland’s Arctic policy – what kind of Arctic actor is Finland?

In two words: “sustainable development”. Development means that Finland’s northern parts are kept inhabited, and that development takes place there, but in a sustainable way. It is also crucial that those who invest in the Arctic region know their responsibility and prioritize sustainable projects. In addition, development should always happen in multiple ways and not solely focus on one purpose after which the area in question would no longer be suitable for other purposes. I think one good indicator of sustainable development is tourism; where there are tourists, something must have been done well - in a balanced and sustainable way.

Economic development in the Arctic will take place, the question is in which direction. If we and other Arctic countries are not involved, then someone else will use the momentum. The Arctic cannot be “frozen” and exist under a moratorium in which no changes take place. That is not realistic, as many countries are already looking into possibilities to make use of natural resources such as oil gas or fisheries in the Arctic. It is not only about the eight Arctic Council states, but also about other countries that might, for example, wish to use the shipping lanes that possibly open up for denser traffic in the future.

Now we are approaching the US Chairmanship. After that, it will be Finland’s turn. Do you have any ideas on the two upcoming Chairmanships?

We have many good examples of successive Chairmanships that have been well-coordinated and carried out, and we have also had a turn once before. The U.S. chairmanship program encourages continuity in the work of the Arctic Council and Finland is more than ready to follow the same course. The most important thing is to start on time and plan in cooperation with the previous Chairmanship.

An interesting development to follow is the cooperation through the Arctic Economic Council (AEC), which was established during the Canadian Chairmanship and where Finland has been active. We recognize that it is a separate entity from the AC and is not yet fully operational, but it would be good if the two could support one another.

What are some of the challenges that you see for the Arctic Council, if any?

There are two challenges, in particular, that I can think of. First, climate change is a challenge and it remains to be seen whether the Arctic Council can act rapidly enough to tackle some challenging issues. The worst-case scenario would be that the region would globalize without effective governance. This could leave us with a “Wild North”, and that would be very unfortunate - no one would win.

We are also living in an environment in which reciprocal trust has been in decline recently. That has not yet reached the Arctic, and - hopefully - it will not happen in the future either. It would be unfortunate if the tense international situation begins to have an impact on Arctic cooperation. But please understand that that is not a prediction, and the present activities and plans give no reason whatsoever to think that Arctic cooperation is in danger.