Time-witness reports: I was dealing with the nuts and bolts

Bernard Funston is one of the architects of key documents that still guide the Arctic Council’s work today. A lawyer by training monitoring the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and with experiences living and working in the Canadian Arctic, he early on joined the team around Mary Simon, then Circumpolar Ambassador for Canada. Their task was to drive Canada’s effort to establish an Arctic Council. In this interview he speaks about the Council’s early days, turning points – and how his muskox pelt got a role in the Council’s inauguration event. Bernard Funston has also been the Sustainable Development Working Groups’ Executive Secretary for many years and tells the story of how sustainable development made it on the agenda of Arctic cooperation.
Bernard Funston (on the right) during an SDWG meeting in Salekhard, Russia, in 2006 (Photo: Harald Finkler)

When did you get engaged in the Arctic Council and what was your role?

I was first involved in the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) as an official living in the Northwest territories of Canada. One of my responsibilities was to monitor the strategy from an international law perspective. Then in October 1994, Mary Simon was appointed as the first Circumpolar Ambassador for Canada. This was a new position in Canada’s foreign service and it signaled a growing interest in the international aspects of the Arctic. Part of her mandate was to try to evolve the AEPS towards an Arctic Council that would be more inclusive of the human dimension of the Arctic.

Mary Simon didn’t have a large staff at the department of Foreign Affairs. She contacted me and asked if I could assist to develop a declaration to describe what an Arctic Council could look like. So, in the beginning of 1995, together with other officials, I started working closely with Mary on creating documents that could offer a platform for negotiating a declaration to establish an Arctic Council – I was dealing with the nuts and bolts as they say. I worked with Mary and her team throughout 1995 and by the summer of 1996 it was clear that we were getting close.

Bernard Funston next to Mary Simon during a Senior Arctic Officials' meeting in London, UK; in 1998 (Photo: Harald Finkler)

What was the general mood at the inauguration ceremony?

I recall that the signing ceremony for the Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council (Ottawa Declaration) took place in the Railway Room in the West Block of the Canadian Parliament – a room symbolic of the road to the future. As the date approached someone suggested that the room needed some “Arctic flavor”. From my time in the North, I had acquired a muskox rug from an Inuk hunter. So, I dragged the rug up from my basement and we draped it on the signing table. It became part of the signing ceremony backdrop.

The mood at the signing ceremony was somewhat somber – or I should say it was a more euphoric event to those who had a sense of that the Arctic was coming of age. The establishment of an Arctic Council was less important to those who didn’t see the Arctic as anything more than the periphery. In the early 1990s and even in 1996, the Arctic was not an important piece of the agenda for most national capitals. Even in Canada, we often talked about the Arctic, but we hadn’t done a lot in terms of its international impact.

It took time for the enthusiasm to build. It wasn’t until about 2006 that the world really began to embrace the importance of the Arctic. Yet, the fact that the Arctic was not so important in 1996 was actually one of the great hidden strengths of the Arctic Council: it gave the Council time to develop its methodology and establish the bonds of trust and cooperation which have become its hallmark. We had almost a decade during which the Working Groups helped to develop the longer-term agenda on climate change and other issues. This might not have been the case if from the onset the Council had been a highly charged political forum.

Funston's muskox rug - giving an Arctic flavor to the inauguration ceremony (Photo: Mike Pinder)

Could you describe the early days of the Council?

Once we got the Council up and running, the first two years under Canada’s Chairmanship were a test of the patience for most of the people who were in the forum to do scientific assessments or talk about policy. The focus was almost entirely on the rules of procedure. Due to disagreements between the parties, it wasn’t until the very last months of the Canadian Chairmanship that we got agreement on the rules for presentation to Ministers in Iqaluit in September 1998. Very often it was two steps forward, one step back.

I chaired the international committees that drafted both the Rules of Procedure for the Council and the Terms of Reference for a Sustainable Development Working Group. After the Council’s inauguration in Ottawa, we had held the first Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting in November/December 1996 in Oslo and we began the rules negotiations using the draft rules of the AEPS. The first day of discussions didn’t go well and I remember working all night to redraft the AEPS rules for presentation on the morning of the second day – and for the next two years we gradually negotiated from these documents to final rules presented to Ministers in 1998.

The first full “working” term of the Council was under the United States’ Chairmanship from 1998 to 2000. But generally, the first years were slow. The four Working Groups that had been incorporated into the Council from the AEPS had existing mandates and they continued their productive work. Their formal transition into the Council occurred at Alta, Norway in June 1997. It wasn’t until the end of the Finnish Chairmanship (2000 – 2002), that things had started to crystalize, and I think we were all amazed by the success of the Icelandic Chairmanship 2002-2004. It was a really substantive Chairmanship agenda that produced results that went on to have global impact – for example, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA); PAME’s work on the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan; and some of the first discussions on how states like China could get involved in the Council’s work.

Good spirits at the AEPS Ministerial in Alta, Norway, 1997 (Photo: Harald Finkler)

You were heavily involved in setting up the Sustainable Development Working Group, could you describe this process?

The creation of the terms of reference for the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) fell into the first two years of the Arctic Council. As there was strong opposition – mostly by the United States – to the Working Group becoming a debating club for what sustainable development meant, it was set up to be project based. Unfortunately, preparing the terms of reference really took a back seat to negotiations on the Rules of Procedure. Only when the draft Rules were close to agreement did the parties turn their attentions to the SDWG. I distinctly remember that the terms of reference emerged from a relatively short meeting of the drafting committee in Ottawa in February 1998.

SDWG did not have a lot of resources. In the early years the SDWG didn’t have a long-term agenda. It only could do what the Arctic States themselves decided to contribute to, but most of the projects were drafted on a one-to-two-year timeframe. It was always very difficult in those first years to get agreement on what those projects might be and who would be involved in them. There tended to be a lot of national bias in the proposals put forward. Perhaps understandably, the SDWG was much more political, partly because the Senior Arctic Officials themselves, in accordance with the terms of reference, constituted the Working Group. They were not technical experts on sustainable development. They were policy makers.

We had about ten initial projects and some of them did well and some of them never got off the ground. Canada for example put forward an initiative on children and youth in the Arctic and it tried to move this project forward but it never really got buy in. There was an early project from the United States on tele-health and tele-medicine and it produced an interesting report and then didn’t go any further. The Indigenous Permanent Participants suggested some projects on fisheries, but they stalled because of a lack of resources.

During the first United States’ Chairmanship (1998-2000), we began to work on infectious disease tracking and that project went on for more than 10 years and was hugely important and did extremely well. But SDWG had never used a system of peer-reviewed assessments, so reports tended to be drafted by some officials and while they provided a useful baseline of information, they did not have the impact in the Arctic Council or elsewhere that, for example, an AMAP report would have.

Nonetheless, SDWG became like a microcosm in many ways of the Arctic Council itself. Because in this small Working Group, you face all the political, social and economic challenges that the Council faces regionally and globally when it tries to deal with this difficult issue of how to sustain the environmental systems, while allowing for the human appetite for resources to be satisfied to some degree.

SDWG meeting in Moscow, Russia, 2006. Bernard Funston standing at the front left. (Photo: Harald Finkler)
SDWG meeting in Ilulissat, Greenland, in 2010

How has the Arctic Council evolved in your view?

The Council definitely has evolved. I would say in its first decade, the Arctic Council was a science forum with some policy relevance, and it wasn’t until about 2006 that it became more of a policy forum with a scientific foundation – for a range of reasons, such as the International Polar Year, predictions about oil and gas resources, and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. And then in the Kiruna Declaration in May 2013, we had its transition from a regional body, that was mainly preoccupied with interregional issues, to a globally-relevant forum. When it admitted non-Arctic states such as China, India, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Singapore as Observers, it evolved into a global enterprise.

That’s where I think the future of the Council lies, in this connection to the rest of the world. The Council could continue to do just regional work. That might be interesting for some of the Arctic states, but most of the change of the Arctic is driven from outside of the Arctic and unless we are engaged with non-Arctic states in a meaningful way, we will not even be getting close to the solutions we need.

The Arctic is not about only the Arctic anymore, it’s about the rest of the planet. It’s not enough to tinker with how the Arctic governs itself, we need to deal with all the things related to human development and environmental impacts around the world. As many others have said, the Arctic is a barometer of planetary health.

One of the most important contributions, sometimes overlooked, is the massive core of knowledge that the Arctic Council has generated. Bernard Funston

What are – in your view – some key achievements of the Council?

One of the most important contributions, sometimes overlooked, is the massive core of knowledge that the Arctic Council has generated. In the early days, I would take an extra suitcase to every Ministerial, Senior Arctic Officials’ and SDWG meeting because I was bringing back a library of Arctic studies. If I could, I would usually take two copies of everything and I would take one copy down to my children’s local school and contribute it to the library.

The second achievement is linked to the acceptance of more Observers in 2013. The Arctic States and Permanent Participants can take credit for giving the Arctic a global profile. People are suddenly understanding that the Arctic is not just a peripheral issue on the top of the world -- it has significance for the planet as a barometer of climate change. The Arctic has really intriguing lessons and stories to tell and the rest of the world seems to embrace that. The Council went from a regional organization to a truly global organization.

But probably the biggest achievement, I would say, is the creation of a demonstration project on the power of cooperation. I’m a lawyer by training and the Arctic Council is not held together by legal glue. It has held together remarkably well for a non-legal entity. The Council is just a forum of like-minded people, talking to each other and agreeing to do things without any kind of formal requirement to do so. And what I have seen over these past 25 years, is this growth of cooperation and trust, built first at an individual level and then moved upwards to the state level.

Bernard Funston at a Senior Arctic Officials' meeting in Syktyvkar, Russia (Photo: Harald Finkler)

What is the core of the Council’s success?

At the core of the Council’s success are science and knowledge and a tandem element of trust and cooperation – to cooperate you often need a fair degree of trust. This trust comes from personal connections and not institutional power. Very real connections are made during coffee breaks on the fringes of Arctic meetings. For everyone who used to say: “we need to make this a serious organization”, “we need to make it treaty-based”, “we need a legal foundation” -- my argument was always: leave it be, why fight the success that trust and cooperation have built. If you make the organization rigid with rules, it may fail to grow or it may not adapt fast enough. The explosion of Arctic knowledge and awareness since its inception meant that the Council had to grow extremely quickly, and it was able to do that because it was not constrained by tightknit rules. It could grow quite organically, and I think that was important.