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Interview: Hannu Halinen, departing SAO for Finland

16 February 2015
Hannu Halinen, long-time Senior Arctic Official for Finland, spoke to the ACS shortly before passing his duties to his successor...

You’ve been the Senior Arctic Official for Finland for several years now, through the signing of both binding agreements, the founding of the secretariat, and many other significant moments for the Arctic Council. What are a couple of high points that you would draw from your experience?

Well, I am proud to be the first person appointed as Finland’s Arctic ambassador, and in that role I am very proud of the first Finnish chairmanship, which was from 2000-2002, although I was not yet SAO at that time. We feel that, once the Arctic Council had settled upon a purpose, Finland did much to help the Council to begin to organize itself to really begin its work in a concrete way.

When it comes to my own tenure as SAO, I’m very happy to have been part of many accomplishments that helped to strengthen the Council, including the establishment of the Secretariat and the signing of the two binding agreements. The agreements are of course agreements among the governments of the member states, but they nevertheless serve to signify the Council’s success in a normative role.

In truth, I think this whole period has been a high point. We are dealing in the Arctic with what I might call an emerging region of not just regional but global importance. With the global growth in interest both outside and inside the Arctic, you have the feeling that your work with the Council is doing something worthwhile for the future. I’m glad to see that the Arctic Council is really considered the preeminent forum for discussing common Arctic issues, and that all eight states are unanimous on that.

Another important issue both within and outside the Council is the question: To whom does the Arctic belong? Is the Arctic really just the ocean? Or is it something else? I submit very strongly that it is much more than the ocean. It is the land, it is the people.

Where in Finland are you from, and have you spent time in the Finnish Arctic?

I’m from inner Finland, where my ancestors have been on our family estate since 1561. And yes; I have spent time in the Finnish Arctic. During my time as SAO I have been to the North quite often – to Rovaniemi, to Oulu – but also to Inari, which has the Sámi cultural center called SAJOS. It is a great area; my wife and I have a shared cottage near Ounasjoki where we go sometimes in winter for skiing and in summer for hiking and collecting mushrooms. It has no electricity; it’s quite rudimentary. You can drive there from Helsinki if you like, but flight connections are also good, and now there is talk of a northern railroad, which is in our national Arctic strategy.

When you move on from your role as SAO, what do you think you will miss most about your work with the Arctic Council?

This work has been the major part of my life for several years now; I am leaving now because of my approaching retirement, and because it makes sense to appoint my successor [Aleksi Härkönen] with enough time to prepare for the approaching ministerial meeting. I will miss most the friendships that have developed over these five years. You meet a lot of people as an SAO, and it is a little like family sentiment, in particular when we are traveling not only in the capitals and hotels and so on but when we really get out into the remote areas. For example, I’ve been to the North Pole, I’ve traveled along the Northern Sea Route for a week, I’ve been to Svalbard; it’s really a privilege to have been able to take part in those things.

Do you feel like you’ve had a special relationship with any of the SAOs over the past five years?

So much of this work is about personal friendships, and a lot of that depends upon how long you serve together with another SAO. So for example, Julie Gourley, the US SAO, has served the longest of any of the current SAOs, but I have a very close relationship with Anton Vasiliev [the former SAO from Russia], thanks to our work together to establish the bilateral Arctic partnership between Finland and Russia.

I think the Nordic group is always a special group too. Although we have different situations and interests in the Arctic, we have similar values and priorities on many issues. The combination of diversity and shared priorities is good, and allows the Nordics to adapt to many discussions within the Arctic Council.

How has the work you’ve done during your five years as Finland’s SAO prepared you for your next role? What comes next?

Well, although I am retiring officially, I am not the sort of person to go to Spain and play golf the rest of my life. I am a very poor golfer. I was happy to be invited to head a research project – IIASA, in Vienna – which recently decided to build up their program on Arctic issues. I will be heading this project along with the research directors from the US Arctic Research Commission and the Alfred Wegener Institute [in Germany]. This program will contribute to the ambitious AACA project (Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic, an AMAP project), so in that sense I will continue to be involved with Arctic Council work.

Photo: ACS / Linnea Nordström.