IIlulissat (Photo: Harald Finkler)
IIlulissat (Photo: Harald Finkler)

Time witness reports: The Council’s informal structure has been important to its longevity and success

Harald Finkler has experienced and captured the evolution of the Arctic Council firsthand – both with his camera and in his interview for this time witness report. For almost two decades, the former Director at the Circumpolar Affairs Directorate of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada contributed to the work of the Council and especially its Sustainable Development Working Group. On his journey across a full Chairmanship cycle – from Canada (1996-1998) to Sweden (2011-2013) – Harald Finkler witnessed the Council grow and adapt to a growing global interest in the Arctic.

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

At the time the first Canadian Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, Mary Simon, distinguished Inuit leader, was tasked to lead the negotiations for the creation of an Arctic Council, I was heading the Circumpolar Affairs Directorate of Indian and Northern Affairs. I was responsible for the international dimension of the department’s mandate, and I was asked to support the negotiations for an Arctic Council. I supported these efforts from 1995 through to the establishment of the Council in 1996. Then, I continued as a member of the Canadian delegation to the Council, attending Senior Arctic Officials’ and Ministerial meetings, and I was also asked to take on the responsibility as Canada’s head of delegation for the Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group, 2003-2013. I left the Arctic Council arena in 2013 – by then I had gone through the full first Chairmanship cycle of the Arctic Council from Canada to Sweden.

Harald Finkler (Photo: Private)

Could you speak about the first years of the Council and how it evolved?

It has been quite a ride when I’m looking back from 1996, the Council’s establishment, until I left the Council during its second decade. So, I will structure my reflections from the first years, to the first decade and then its further development.

Canada`s inaugural Chairmanship was quite an unusual experience – when you look at how Chairmanships have unfolded since then. The Canadian Chairmanship started in 1996, and at that time, the Council was still a work in progress. When you read the founding document, the Ottawa Declaration, you think: ‘wow it’s all set up and ready to go’; but there were some gaps, institutionally and operationally, that needed to be addressed in the Council`s start up. To that end, Ministers, at their founding meeting in Ottawa, tasked the Canadian Chairmanship to develop the Council’s Rules of Procedures, the Terms of References for a Sustainable Development Program, and to oversee the transition of the work of the four existing Working Groups from the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) – AMAP, CAFF, EPPR and PAME – and a Task Force on Sustainable Development and Utilization into the Arctic Council.

At the conclusion of the first Canadian Chairmanship, Ministers adopted the Council’s Rules of Procedure and Terms of Reference for a Sustainable Development Program, and established the Sustainable Development Working Group – but it was a drawn-out process. Specifically, reaching consensus on the Rules of Procedure, amidst dramatically divergent views on how the Council should operate, how decisions were to be made, how it engaged with Observers, and so on, consumed 18 months of Canada’s Chairmanship. This effectively constrained the development and scope of Canada`s project work and deliverables for its Chairmanship. Moreover, given the incomplete status of the Sustainable Development proposals, substantive deliverables clustered around the output to emerge from reports produced by the former AEPS Working Groups such as AMAP`s assessment report on Arctic Pollution Issues. Unfortunately, a more balanced and integrated approach in the environmental/human dimensional interface envisaged at the time of the Council`s establishment did not materialize. To conclude, it was a modest Chairmanship but very important in terms of laying some of the groundwork, setting up the building blocks of the Council.

Notwithstanding, an important legacy was Mary Simon’s engagement and advocacy for a strong role of the Indigenous Peoples’ organizations in the Arctic Council. In this regard, she would also include representatives from Canadian Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, that had not yet attained Permanent Participant status, on the Canadian delegation enabling them to see what the Council was all about. Thus, in 1998 at the Iqaluit Ministerial meeting, the Aleut International Association joined the Council and two years later in Barrow, the Gwich’in Council International and the Arctic Athabascan Council followed.

Harald Finkler brought his camera to all Arctic Council and SDWG meetings and has create an archive of historic photos. Here: SDWG delegates during a meeting in Svolvær, Norway.

The first decade: Creating a baseline for Arctic knowledge

During the first decade, the Council still had to deal with a range of institutional and organizational challenges. However, it is worth mentioning that right at the outset, the Council was successful in generating knowledge and identifying emerging issues – this was most likely the case because of the well-established Working Groups that had operated under the AEPS. The Council found a niche in producing quality scientific assessments and reports, which produced knowledge on the Arctic in a coherent way. Many of these early reports were baseline studies, they identified knowledge gaps and provided a framework for decision making.

This was one pronounced and extraordinary strength of the Arctic Council at its beginning – the other was the creation of the category of Permanent Participants. The status as Permanent Participants allowed Indigenous Peoples’ organizations to sit at the table with state representatives. In my view, this was a major breakthrough for their engagement in international fora and showcases a truly creative and innovative approach to intergovernmental relations and Arctic governance.

The second decade: Adaptation to a global attention

During its second decade, the Council was faced with a changing context for its engagement. In particular, the Arctic gained global recognition. The accelerated environmental and socio-economic changes in the region, primarily driven by climate change and resource development, lead to people seeing the Arctic as a barometer for global change. Notably, the Council’s Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) offered a comprehensive knowledge base in this regard.

Due to the heightened interest, the Council began to have discussions on whether it was effectively organized to meet these new challenges. Specifically, with its emerging status globally, the Council attracted an unprecedented number of applications for Observer status in the Council. This development, combined with the Council`s ever expanding workload and its complexity, as well as pressures inherent in meeting expectations, provided the impetus for strengthening the Council’s effectiveness and efficiency. Accordingly, the 2006 Salekhard Ministerial Declaration directed Senior Arctic Officials to examine these issues with a view to strengthen the Council’s structure. Concurrently, in a major development in the Council`s modus operandi, beginning in 2009, Ministers mandated Task Forces to negotiate specific functional binding cooperative agreements among Arctic States.

Moving forward, in response to SAO recommendations developed intersessionally, Ministers adopted the outreach and communications guidelines, and approved the establishment of a permanent secretariat, new observer criteria, and the Council’s revised Rules of Procedure. Significantly, having acknowledged the Council`s ability to manage / consolidate its internal affairs, at the Kiruna Ministerial 2013, Ministers requested SAOs to identify opportunities where the Council`s work could influence and shape action in regional and international fora… thus a broadening of its sphere of influence and engagement, as initiated earlier, for example, in shaping international agreements on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and influencing regulations in Arctic waters. In my view, this marks the time when things seemed to fall into place institutionally in its evolution as the premier forum for Arctic cooperation then entering Round II of its rotating Chairmanships in 2013.

Al Gore at an Arctic Council meeting in Tromsø, Norway. (Photo: Harald Finkler)

You were very much engaged in the work of the Sustainable Development Working Group. Could you describe how it has evolved over the years?

To begin, the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) was somewhat an anomaly in comparison to the Council’s other Working Groups. Transitioning to the Arctic Council, originally as the Task Force on Sustainable Development and Utilization, it was only established as a Working Group by Ministers at the Iqaluit Ministerial in 1998, following their adoption of the Arctic Council’s Terms of Reference for a Sustainable Development Program. But the Terms of Reference were hardly what people expected. Delegates drafting the document were unable to bridge their differences during the negotiations, and so, rather than a strategic document to guide SDWG`s work, the final text ended up with a paragraph on the goal of sustainable development with the remainder touching on the requirements for submitting projects. Notwithstanding, by the end of the first Canadian Chairmanship, the Council’s fifth Working Group was established, bringing together Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participants albeit devoid of any in-house subject matter experts.

Nevertheless, the SDWG was still a work in progress. Some seminal was work done, such as the Arctic Human Development Report (2004), Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic (2007), and Arctic Social Indicators (2010), but there was no in-house capacity to guide the group on the way forward on the findings and recommendations to emerge from these baseline assessments. During the Norwegian Chairmanship (2006-2009) and the Chairmanship of the Kingdom of Denmark (2009-2011), it became apparent that the SDWG was struggling to effectively managing its portfolio of projects. Specifically, it needed to develop a more integrated and inclusive approach in managing and planning its priority-based activities. Thus, in 2009, a Canada-led Task Force was established to develop the Terms of Reference for a strategic plan for SDWG. To that end, it reviewed the issues facing SDWG and looked into ways to better organize its work in a more coherent manner within thematic areas.

Concurrently, Senior Arctic Officials were pushing for more cooperation between the Working Groups and urged them to identify cross-cutting dimensions. The idea was that SDWG would provide data on the human dimension, but lacking the institutional capacity, it was unable to deliver. Accordingly, first, we decided to draw on external expertise for SDWG’s health portfolio, and in 2009 established a subsidiary body, the Arctic Human Health Expert Group. Secondly, as a need emerged to provide input on socio, economic and cultural issues, during Sweden`s Chairmanship, we created another Expert Group on these topics. This became an essential building block; it gave SDWG a structure for accessing outside expertise as required. Moreover, this cross-cutting capacity enabled SDWG to contribute to the broader priorities of the Council. At this point I want to mention the excellent support provided by Bernard Funston, SDWG’s longtime Executive Secretary, and Claudette Fortin, Senior Advisor to the Canadian Delegation.

At the 2006 Salekhard Ministerial meeting (Photo: Harald Finkler)

What would you say is at the core of the Council’s success?

There are several elements to the Council’s success: The creation of the Permanent Participant category and unique role of Arctic Indigenous Peoples, for one. But also, the excellence in knowledge generation, producing an array of scientific knowledge and recommendations which provided a framework in shaping and framing issues for decision making – while recognizing the importance of Indigenous knowledge alongside Western scientific knowledge. I also think the fact that the Council is informally structured, enabled it to move forward expeditiously on addressing the weaknesses and managing its internal affairs, which has been important to its longevity and success. I think this underscores the Council’s readiness and capacity to adapt. As well, the establishment of Task Forces, under whose auspices legally binding agreements could be negotiated for example, advanced the Council’s role in the realm of policy and action. It demonstrates its leadership as the premier forum for promoting Arctic cooperation. In retrospect, on its establishment, there was no certainty on how the Arctic Council would unfold, but it has really come together during Round I of the Council’s rotating Chairmanships, 1996-2013, and I feel privileged to have played a role.

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