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Interview: Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen, SAO Chair

27 June 2017
When the Arctic Council Chairmanship passed from the United States to Finland in May of 2017, Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen assumed the role of Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials (SAO Chair), charged with overseeing the Arctic Council's work during the Finnish Chairmanship. Read the interview below to learn more about his background and thoughts on the upcoming years of the Council's work.

Could you give us a brief overview of your professional background? What steps have led you to the position of SAO Chair?

It’s difficult to provide an overview as such; I’ve been working in this field for more than 30 years. In the course of that career, I’ve worked a good deal in the areas of security policy and multilateral diplomacy, and I spent two years outside the foreign ministry as a foreign policy advisor to the president of Finland. My postings abroad have included western and central Europe, as well as both North and South America.

When I returned from my post as Finland’s ambassador to Estonia, I wanted to find something at home in Finland – something meaningful, multilateral, and new. Arctic cooperation offered this, and – now that Finland is the Chair of the Arctic Council – I am glad to have taken on the role of SAO Chair.

You’ve now spent several years working within the Arctic Council. What is it about what the Council does, or how it works, that you find most inspiring or compelling?

What most inspires me is the new horizons that Arctic cooperation is opening for Arctic countries, as well as for others. There are new developments in the political relationships between the Arctic States themselves, but there are many other entities that also follow Arctic cooperation with great interest, and that contribute in one way or another to Arctic cooperation.

I also find it inspiring to think about the 4 million people who live in the Arctic. This is a tiny group in a vast area, and it includes different cultures, including indigenous peoples who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years before explorers ever sailed to those shores. Their involvement is an inspiring element of Arctic cooperation.

As you look ahead to two years as SAO Chair, what do you see as the most important aspects of your work?

Many aspects of this work are important – the big things, the medium things, and the small things. And I am not working alone here; our whole Arctic team is engaged, and we think about our tasks as a group effort. The biggest task before us was the setting of our four priorities, which have been welcomed by the Arctic States and the Permanent Participants. The themes that we have chosen are substantial, and our work in these areas will not be completed in two years; it will continue out of necessity.

Nor is it a small task to organize Arctic Council meetings. Our recent SAO meeting in Helsinki involved a lot of detail and required a lot of effort – I think our team passed the test, with the support of the ACS, on whose efforts we also rely. At the same time, our team was organizing an Arctic EU event, which also involved a lot of effort. We’re already preparing for our meetings later in 2017, and into 2018 and 2019. With these meetings, it’s also important to us that the agendas be as inspiring and exciting as possible, not simply a matter of routine. We’d like to open to wider perspectives, including our strong desire to involve Observers. The U.S. did a great job in this regard, and we want to follow their good example.

We also count very much on harmonious cooperation within the Council as a whole. It is not a one-country show. The Chairmanship has a role, certainly, but the interaction among the SAOs, the PPs, and the Working Groups is critical. We’ve made an effort to involve and inform the Working Groups as early as possible of our plans for the Chairmanship priorities, and I’m glad to see that the Working Groups have taken these priorities into account in whatever ways they are able.

Finland has four priorities for its Chairmanship – environmental protection, connectivity, meteorological cooperation, and education. Are any of these particularly close to your heart?

All of our priorities are close to my heart, honestly. And they are bound together by climate change, which I have not yet mentioned. Climate change is something that will affect everything that is done in the Arctic region, and it should be visible in all the activities of the Council and its Working Groups. The Council’s climate work is not an individual priority; instead, it’s a broad theme that ties everything together. It’s a vital concern for the future development of the Arctic region, and it’s a vital concern in many communities. It is not debatable whether it is happening or not. Our four priority areas will help us identify solutions to the changing situation, but we must work to get the changing situation itself under control as well.

Have you had the chance to spend much time in Finland’s Arctic? What do you enjoy most about it?

I like to visit Finnish Lapland. Almost 200,000 people live there, and it’s not that far-removed from the rest of Finland. It is an integrated part of Finland’s economy, it is part of Finnish culture, and it is part of Finland’s education system, including its universities. When I visit, I don’t go there as a tourist. I have done that also, but now I find that there are people who live there who are becoming friends. Some have become close friends already.