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We got the recognition we called for – An interview with Gunn-Britt Retter

26 April 2019
Gunn-Britt Retter is the Head of the Arctic and Environment Unit of the Saami Council – and one of the delegates that has attended most Ministerial meetings. In this interview, Gunn-Britt speaks about the role of Permanent Participants at Ministerial meetings and beyond, reflects on changes she has seen over the years, and her hopes for an equal share of involvement for all Permanent Participants.

The upcoming Ministerial meeting will be the eleventh. How many of these have you participated in and in which capacity?

The upcoming Ministerial meeting will be my ninth. The last seven I have attended as Head of the Arctic and Environment Unit of the Saami Council. In this role I coordinate the Saami Council’s activities in the Arctic Council. My two first Ministerial meetings, I attended as technical advisor for the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat.

What is the role of the indigenous organizations represented by the Arctic Council’s Permanent Participants – both at a Ministerial meeting itself and in the preceding preparations?

The Permanent Participants are, as the name states, permanent participants to the Arctic Council. This means we are welcome to participate at all levels of the Council’s work. At the Ministerial our leadership sits at one table with the Foreign Ministers of the Arctic States. The Saami Council and the representatives of the five other Permanent Participants also take part in preparing the Ministerial Declaration, as well as other documents, such as the Senior Arctic Officials report to Ministers. Further, we are involved in the documents that are reflected in this latter report through our engagement in the Council’s Working Groups. So, we participate with our leadership and contribute our expertise at all different levels of the Arctic Council.

Do you feel Ministerial meetings have changed over the years?

Yes, in the early years we [the Permanent Participants] were not always included in all the pre-Ministerial drafting sessions or internal meetings. It was more of a fight to be part of the drafting sessions. That has changed and is not a question anymore. It has become very natural over the past ten to twelve years for the Permanent Participants’ Head of Delegations to join when the Senior Arctic Officials meet.

I generally feel that the contributions of the indigenous peoples have been welcomed all the years I have been involved. The participation of indigenous peoples’ organizations has been recognized throughout Ministerial declarations, also in the Council’s founding document, the Ottawa Declaration. Increasingly, also indigenous knowledge is being recognized in the documents, while we are still struggling a bit on how to best include it.

I think we have proven that we have something to contribute and we are invited to bring our knowledge to the table. Somehow with the increasing number of Observers, I feel that the Permanent Participants’ role is being recognized even further. Our place is around the table with the Arctic States’ representatives. So that space has been taken by the indigenous peoples and is not available to Observers. It was very clearly uttered that there is a division and difference, and this gave a rise to our recognition.

Have there been any changes that you could not have anticipated at your first Ministerial meetings?

Yes, that I am still here [laughs]. I also have to say that I was much younger, and I was not able to think 18 years ahead on what to expect and not to expect.

What I always repeat, and I can also repeat here, is that we within the Arctic Council spent many of the early years discussing how we get heard, how we get our message out. There was a group of people that was very concerned about the Arctic environment, pollution, sustainable developed and environmental protection of the Arctic. But it was a much smaller group than today, so I probably did not expect it to grow so much.

Neither did I expect that we would succeed in getting our messages and concerns about the Arctic out and that so many people in the world would turn their focus to the Arctic. I think that is also a challenge for the Arctic Council. How do we deal with the increased attention, while staying transparent and not closing the doors?

We have much more executive sessions now than we used to have. That is not only because of the size but also because we have a secretariat and deal with administrative issues, plans, budgets and reports that are of no interest to others. But of course, these executive meetings are also an opportunity to discuss more sensitive issues, and we have to be very careful to not lose transparency. Because that was one of the beauties of the Arctic Council: that it was so open.

Looking ahead: what issues will become more important in future Chairmanships and at future Ministerial meetings?

If you don’t change the Council’s mandate, you will still have the same issues as today – and I don’t expect us to change the mandate in the foreseeable future. I hope that we can strengthen the indigenous voices in the sense that all Permanent Participants are equally able to contribute to the Council’s work. The Saami Council, the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North are old and long-standing organizations that have a mandate outside of Arctic Council and a relatively big staff compared to other Permanent Participant organizations. We got the recognition we called for, but our participation depends on how we can contribute to the work. We cannot keep calling for a right to contribute, we also have to deliver. For this, all six Permanent Participants have to be able to engage in a meaningful way.