Signing of the Host Country Agreement in Tromsø, Norway
Signing of the Host Country Agreement in Tromsø, Norway
© Linnea Nordström / Arctic Council Secretariat

The secretariat question – and its long-winded answer

1 June 2023
The story of how the Arctic Council got a standing secretariat.

“The question of [a] permanent secretariat has been discussed for a long time in the Arctic Council,” Pekka Haavisto noted in his 2001 study on the structure of the work in the Arctic Council. Haavisto himself had five years earlier signed the Ottawa Declaration on behalf of Finland and the founding document of the Council specified that secretariat support functions should rotate sequentially among the Arctic States.

Yet, as the Council evolved, it started to outgrow structures laid by the preceding Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) had therefore been tasked at the Barrow Ministerial meeting in October 2000 to “consider and recommend ways to improve how work is structured in the Arctic Council” until the high-level representatives of the Arctic States would reconvene in two years’ time in Inari, Finland. That's when Haavisto got re-engaged with Arctic Council affairs.

Finland’s former Minister of Development and the Environment was a visiting researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs at the time and he’d been commissioned by Finland’s Arctic Council Chairmanship to develop a review of the Council’s structures. The secretariat question was one of many aspects Haavisto outlined in the study that could enhance efficiency of the Council’s operations. In the long run, he wrote in the report, “a permanent secretariat would help the Arctic Council to strengthen its role as an Arctic cooperation fora, and its capacity to deal with the new challenges of the Arctic”.

No consensus (yet)

His draft report was presented in June 2001. By November, the Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials (SAO Chair) had discussed the matters presented in the study bilaterally with representatives of the other Arctic States to identify those recommendations that enjoyed support among the States and Permanent Participants. A permanent secretariat wasn’t one of them.

While Norway noted for the record that it regarded the need for a permanent secretariat as essential, the suggestion didn’t reach consensus. The SAO Report to Ministers in 2002 provided an initial answer to the secretariat question: “[…] the Council is operating as a high level forum without a permanent secretariat or financial resources of its own. The possible establishment of a permanent secretariat with an annual budget based on obligatory funding does not enjoy unanimous support among the Member States.”

“The United States was opposed to creating an Arctic Council Secretariat from the Council’s inception in 1996,” noted Julie Gourley, U.S. Senior Arctic Official (2005-2019). “We felt the chairing State could manage secretariat responsibilities without significant burden, and that a standing secretariat could take on a life of its own independent of the Arctic States becoming a sort of mini-international organization with its own identity, positions and relationships that would not necessarily reflect the Arctic States’ views.” Costs were another concern.

The secretariat question was put on hold for the time being. With the support of rotating secretariats, the Arctic Council continued to grow and establish itself as a leading forum on Arctic issues. In 2004, the Arctic Council released landmark reports such as the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the Arctic Human Development Report and the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan, and interest in the Arctic grew proportionately with the speed of change in the region. But with increased attention and recognition came also growing administrative needs and even to states that previously had been opposed to a permanent secretariat, “it became clear that more intensive secretariat services would be beneficial,” wrote Julie.

SAO meeting in Karasjok and Kautokeino, 2008
© Harald Finkler

Norway’s tactical move

Meanwhile, Norway and subsequently the Kingdom of Denmark and Sweden were preparing for their respective first Chairmanship terms, and Norway saw its chance to prove the benefits of a (more) permanent secretariat. At the Salekhard Ministerial meeting in 2006, the incoming Norwegian Chairmanship presented its two-year program and joint objectives and priorities of the consecutive Scandinavian Chairmanships – including the decision to set up a temporary secretariat in Tromsø that would serve the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Chairmanships from 2006 to 2012.

The Secretariat and overall discussions on the structure of the Council were back on the agenda. In a discussion paper on Improving the Efficiency and Effectiveness of the Arctic Council, which the Arctic Athabaskan Council tabled for the SAO meeting in Tromsø in 2007, the PP organization stated it fully supported the establishment of the temporary Secretariat but also pointedly noted that this was “not the result of a collective decision by the Council”. This decision was still outstanding – and now it was in the hands of Norway to provide tangible arguments to the discussion.

Three people began working from Tromsø to support the Chairmanship: the Head of the Secretariat, an advisor on meetings and agendas and a communication officer with added logistics tasks. For all practical purposes they were formally employed by the Norwegian Polar Institute and were co-located in their premises in the Fram Centre - High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment. From the day the temporary Secretariat became fully operational, in August 2007, to the end of the Norwegian Chairmanship in April 2009, the Secretariat staff was “making important contributions to improving the efficiency of the work of the Arctic Council, including advancing outreach and information sharing activities of the Arctic Council”, as described in the 2009 SAO Report to Ministers.

There had been some arguments about the exact language but in the Tromsø Declaration, the Arctic States were able to agree to “welcome Norway’s hosting of the Arctic Council Secretariat in Tromsø, 2007-2013, in cooperation with Denmark and Sweden, and appreciate the Secretariat’s contribution to the increased efficiency of the work of Arctic Council.”

Tromsø vs Reykjavik

The temporary Secretariat had proven its value early on and as the Council was heading into the Danish Chairmanship, discussions on a permanent secretariat “began in earnest,” as Julie noted, and this time, consensus was reached. But that wasn’t the full answer to the secretariat question. Before Ministers could announce their unanimous support, another important decision had to be made: where would it be located?

Just hours before the Ministerial meeting in Nuuk was scheduled to take place, the Ministers of the Arctic States met for a private lunch and discussed the last two options on the table: Tromsø, the Northern Norwegian city that was currently home to the temporary secretariat, and Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. Both locations had strong arguments in their favor.

On the one hand, Reykjavik was a capital, strategically based between North America and Europe. Tromsø, on the other hand, was located north of the Arctic Circle and as Robert Kadas, Deputy SAO for Canada, noted: “Norway had done its homework.” The country was turning Tromsø into a global Arctic center and an Arctic Council Secretariat would fit nicely among other institutes that had been moved or established in the Arctic city.

Which argument tipped the vote remains among those seated at the lunch table, but in the end the Ministers agreed on the Arctic Council Secretariat’s home and announced in the 2011 Nuuk Declaration that they:

“Decide to strengthen the capacity of the Arctic Council to respond to the challenges and opportunities facing the Arctic by establishing a standing Arctic Council secretariat […] in Tromsø, Norway to be operational no later than at the beginning of the Canadian Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2013”.

Nuuk Ministerial meeting, 2011
© Harald Finkler

Sweden’s sprint

It had taken the Council 15 years to reach consensus on a permanent secretariat (and 10 years had passed since Pekka Haavisto pointed out that the question already had been discussed for a long time) – and suddenly everything had to move very quickly. “We had two years to get the job done,” Gustaf Lind recalled, then SAO Chair of the Swedish Chairmanship.

Besides solving the secretariat question, the Nuuk Declaration established a Task Force that would take care of the practicalities. The mandate for the Task Force for Institutional Issues (TFII), which would be chaired by Swedish SAO Andreas von Uexkull, was to provide SAOs with recommendations on “all necessary issues related to the establishment of the AC Secretariat in order for the Secretariat to be fully operational at the beginning of the Canadian chairmanship of the Arctic Council by 2013” (Nuuk SAO Report to Ministers, 2011).

The annex of the 2011 SAO report included a ”Framework for Strengthening the Arctic Council: Establishing a secretariat” and it summarized the scope of the newly established body in a nutshell: “The Secretariat will enhance the objectives of the Arctic Council through the establishment of administrative capacity and by providing continuity, institutional memory, operational efficiency, enhanced communication and outreach, exchange of information with other relevant international organizations and to support activities of the Arctic Council.” The framework also determined that the ACS initially would have up to 10 staff members, its operations should be reviewed after six years and that the shared portion of the administrative budget should not exceed USD 1 million.

Within those boundaries, it was up to the TFII to deal with the nuts and bolts: Would the Secretariat be purely administrative or provide research capacity? Would the ACS and staff have diplomatic status, such as embassies or the UN? How would those one million dollars be spent, what was the salary scale for staff?

Signing of the Host Country Agreement in Tromsø, Norway
© Linnea Nordstöm

Wine and dine through the deadlock

“It was an endless line-up of meetings,” Nina Buvang Vaaja, the head of the temporary Secretariat, remembered – and the clock was ticking. The Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the eight Arctic States were to meet one year into the Swedish Chairmanship, in May 2012. By then, all documents for establishing the standing Secretariat had to be finalized and provisionally adopted by SAOs. This included terms of reference, staff rules, financial rules, roles and responsibilities of the director, indicative budgets, an initial workplan – and as a bonus: the TFII was involved in drafting the Host Country Agreement between Norway and the Secretariat, that formalized the legal parameters for Secretariat operations. (To put the full workload into perspective, the Task Force was also requested to revise the Council’s Rules of Procedure and to draft an Observer manual.)

And indeed, Deputy Minsters approved the suite of documents in May 2012 – but recounts of the preceding SAO meeting suggest that it was anything but smooth sailing to get this far. “The negotiations got stuck,” recalled Gustaf Lind, and the Swedish hosts decided that there was only one way out of the deadlock: It was time to close the notebooks, and instead to bring the delegates to the finest dining room of the government offices to wine and dine.

Half a year later, the SAOs appointed Magnús Jóhannesson, Permanent Secretary of the Icelandic Ministry of the Environment, as the first ACS director, and on January 21, 2012, he and Norway’s then Foreign Minister, Espen Barth Eide, signed the Host Country Agreement. The ACS was formally established – “the most important achievement,” as stated in the 2013 SAO Report to Ministers, for strengthening the institutional framework of the Arctic Council.