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Interview: Arni Thor Sigurdsson, SAO for Iceland

13 August 2015
Read an interview with Arni Thor Sigurdsson, the recently-appointed Senior Arctic Official for Iceland…

Q: What is your background, and how do you feel it has prepared you for your role as a Senior Arctic Official?

I grew up in Reykjavik, where I was born, but I took my university education in economics and Russian in Norway, Sweden and Russia. Later, I finished a diploma in Public Administration and a master’s degree in International Relations at the University of Iceland. After coming back to Iceland, I was engaged in Icelandic politics for two decades, first as City Councillor in the capital city of Reykjavik, and then as a member of Iceland’s parliament, the Althingi. During my political career I was always involved in international cooperation, inter alia in the Council of Europe, the Nordic Council and the EFTA/EEA cooperation. In parliament I served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and led the parliamentary work on Iceland’s Arctic Strategy. Therefore, when I left politics, it was only natural that I found my niche in the foreign service. It’s also natural that Arctic issues in particular are so appealing at this moment, particularly because of the increased general interest in the region and the extensive challenges we are facing as a consequence of climate change. I am confident that my experience in various international forums and my background as a politician will be helpful in my work as Senior Arctic Official and in the cooperation with my fellow SAOs and the Arctic Council family.

Q: What elements of your work with the Arctic Council are you most looking forward to?

The Arctic covers a wide range of issues of utmost importance to Iceland, as well as the other States, pertaining not least to the environment and sustainable and responsible utilisation of natural resources as well as social development in the region. I am particularly looking forward to the cooperation with other Arctic States, the Permanent Participants, and the Observers as well as the Working Groups, Task Forces and the Arctic Council Secretariat on these challenging issues. Coming from Iceland, it should be no surprise that the ocean and marine affairs interest me very strongly, and thus I welcome the U.S. Chairmanship’s emphasis on Arctic marine cooperation, and I intend to work actively on those issues. Also, in less than four years’ time, it will be Iceland’s turn to chair the Arctic Council and I foresee that we will - sooner rather than later - start the preparations for our chairmanship. So, we have challenging and interesting times ahead of us and I am eager to take on all these fascinating tasks.

Q: What are some of the challenges that you see for the Arctic Council that you are looking forward to tackling in your new position?

Iceland has identified the Arctic as a key priority in its foreign policy, and has emphasised a strong Arctic Council as the most important consultative forum on Arctic issues. The increased interest in the Arctic internationally and the debate over the utilisation of natural resources and climate change in the Arctic is likely to enhance the Arctic Council’s political weight and relevance in years to come. One of the challenges we face within the Arctic Council is to preserve the unity and solidarity between the member States, to ensure full participation by all eight Arctic States in all decisions, and to embrace the various – and sometimes contradictory – interests and views of the States and Permanent Participants. Further, I believe it is a challenging task for the Arctic Council to develop its cooperation with the increasing number of Observers – a clear sign of how significant the Arctic has become on the international arena. I am confident that the Arctic Council has benefitted from their contribution, however the growing number of Observers necessitates more coherent and systematic procedures, and I am glad that during the next two years we will look into issues and opportunities for future collaboration. Lastly, I would like to underline the importance of the Arctic Council Secretariat (ACS); the expertise and know-how of the staff are valuable assets and the member States should endeavour to strengthen the ACS as a ballast in our work.