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Interview with Nina Vaaja, director of the Arctic Council Secretariat

In late 2017, the Arctic Council's Senior Arctic Officials selected Nina Vaaja as the new director of the Arctic Council Secretariat (ACS) in Tromsø, Norway. Having served as deputy director for the ACS from 2013-2017, Ms. Vaaja is well-prepared for the tasks ahead.

Q: How did you first come to be engaged with Arctic issues, and what led you to the Arctic Council Secretariat when you first joined?

Actually, I’ve been engaged with Arctic issues my whole life, although of course I never thought about it when I was a child. I was born and raised in Tromsø, Norway, high above the Arctic Circle. In school, I started studying the Russian language, and I visited Russia on several occasions. A lot of my interest in Arctic issues, international relations, and politics germinated in these early years. After I started my professional career in Norway’s foreign service, I served at the Norwegian consulate general in Murmansk for two years. After my stint in Murmansk, I did move away from Arctic issues for a couple of years, living in cities like Oslo, London, and Rome. But, although I enjoyed living in the South, there was always a part of me that longed to return to the North, and to Arctic issues. When I was offered a chance to move back to Tromsø, my home town, to work at the Secretariat, I happily accepted. I haven’t had any regrets since; I get to live where I most want to be, and I have a fascinating job!

Q: You led the temporary Arctic Council Secretariat prior to 2013, and have been with the standing ACS since it opened its doors. How has the organization changed since you began?

When I first came to the ACS in 2009, we were building the office from scratch, so it goes without saying that a great deal has changed. As Arctic issues have moved higher and higher on the international agenda, the Arctic Council has also become a larger and more complex forum. For example, there are more subsidiary bodies now than there were in the early days. The breadth of our work has also expanded, and today we deal with a myriad of Arctic issues as varied as biodiversity monitoring, indigenous language preservation, black carbon emissions reduction, marine protected areas, invasive species, search and rescue, oil pollution prevention and response, chemicals of emerging concern in the Arctic environment, and – of course – climate change.

Many factors have caused the Council to develop in this way, including climate change, increasing access to the Arctic Ocean, and growing political interest in the world at large and “at home” among the Arctic States. Accordingly, the Council’s level of activity has been growing steadily, and we now see Council meetings taking place year-round. There’s also been substantial growth in our capacity to communicate outwardly about the great work that is going on within the Arctic Council. I hope that the establishment of the ACS has helped the Council as a whole to grow by adding stable professional capacity, not least for communications and outreach, and by serving as the Council’s institutional memory.

Q: Which aspects of this role are you most looking forward to during your tenure, and are there any challenges that you see?

I’m really looking forward to working with the many great people from the States, Permanent Participants, Working Groups, and Observers who are involved with the Arctic Council’s work, and, of course, with my colleagues here at the ACS. We have an amazing team, full of people who always go the extra mile for the Arctic Council when it’s needed. The Council is in an exciting time now, having passed its 20-year anniversary in 2016, and looking at an Arctic region that is facing many challenges and rapid changes ahead. I hope the ACS will continue to be able to provide the support that the Council needs as it consolidates its position as the primary forum for Arctic issues.