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Analysis and politics behind Arctic Council's meeting

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
It is ironic that whereas countries like China, Japan, and Korea were angling for so long to merely be granted permanent observer status to the Arctic Council -- and therefore ensure their presence at meetings and discussions -- Greenland has willingly turned its back on the chance to be heard. Aaron Jansen illustration

Editor's note: The Arctic Council met this past week in Sweden. Here's a news roundup from the meeting.

Asia in, EU not yet

China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India and Italy have all been admitted as permanent observer states to the Arctic Council, while the European Union will have to wait. Though technically admitted, it still must work out its differences with Canada. Countries are admitted as permanent observer states by consensus between the eight member states and six permanent participants. A consensus was not yet completely reached on the EU’s application because of Canada’s objection to the organization’s ban on the import of seal furs, which has disproportionately harmed indigenous livelihoods in northern Canada. The Arctic Council’s Kiruna Declaration (PDF) welcome the new permanent observer states under the section, “Strengthening the Arctic Council.”

In a joint statement issued by HR/VP Catherine Ashton and EU Commissioner Maria Damanaki, the representatives stated, “The EU welcomes the Arctic Council’s decision on the EU’s application for permanent observership. The EU considers the Arctic Council a primary international forum for Arctic cooperation and looks forward to stepping up its engagement with the Arctic partners in tackling the challenges faced by this region of increasing importance. Further to previous exchanges with the Canadian authorities the EU will now work expeditiously with them to address the outstanding issue of their concern.”

Greenland’s boycott

The controversy demonstrates that indigenous affairs can and do have a real impact on international relations. The new chairperson of the Arctic Council, Leona Agglukaq, is of indigenous heritage herself -- a first for someone in this position. Yet a major indigenous voice was missing from the ministerial meeting in Kiruna: that of Greenland, which boycotted the summit.

Nunatsiaq News stated that Denmark used to have three chairs at meetings until Sweden took over the chairmanship. Now, Greenland and the Faroe Islands are forced to sit behind, which newly elected Greenlandic Premier Aleqa Hammond finds unfair.

In a May 14 interview in Danish with the Greenlandic newspaper Sermitsiaq, Hammond expressed: “We believe it is of great importance for the population of Greenland and Greenlandic society that we are directly involved in the negotiations on conditions in Greenland. The work of the Arctic Council is very important to us, and we will not settle for being on the sidelines.”

Danish Foreign Minister Villy Søvndal noted, “We hope that there will soon be basis for Greenland to fully resume its place in the Arctic Council’s work and we will be working actively to achieve that.” Denmark was successful in its request for two chairs in Kiruna. The second went to the Faroe Islands as Greenland sat out the meetings, a decision which former Premier Kuupik Kleist called “unwise.” “You must be present if you want to be heard in a case,” he opined to Sermitsiaq.

It is ironic that whereas countries like China, Japan, and Korea were angling for so long to merely be granted permanent observer status -- and therefore ensure their presence at meetings and discussions -- Greenland has willingly turned its back on the chance to be heard. But maybe the boycott -- and the lack of presence -- speaks more loudly than anything Hammond could have said. After all, when the Kremlin shut down RAIPON, the Russian indigenous peoples’ organization and permanent participant in the Arctic Council, the media paid it more attention than at any other time I can remember. Absence, then, is just as notable as presence, but in a different way. 

So now, the debate turns from the question of which countries will obtain permanent observer status to whether Greenland and the Faroe Islands should be according representation on an equal level as the other Arctic states, or at the very least, get back their individual chairs during meetings.

No such thing as a free lunch

The chairmanship has now passed to Canada, marking a new era for the Arctic Council, and for Arctic affairs more broadly construed.

The chairmanship has now rotated through all eight member states, and Canada will hold the position it held at the start of the Arctic Council from 1996-1998. With all of the Asian applicants admitted, plus Italy, to permanent observer status, it will be interesting to see what types of projects the Arctic Council will pursue. China, Japan, and Korea are already quite involved in climate change research, so perhaps the Arctic Council will do even more in this area (though keeping in mind that funding from an observer state can never outstrip that of a permanent member).

As Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide stated, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch…By becoming an observer you’re also signing up to the principles embodied by this organization, and that is why we have been working hard to make that happen.”

The Kiruna Declaration made note of the new Observer Manual adopted by the Senior Arctic Officials, which I haven’t seen yet but hopefully will be posted soon. The manual will outline the logistics and roles to be played by permanent observer states.

North American absence and presence

The other notable absence from the Arctic Council was that of the Canadian Foreign Minister, John Baird. As the Globe and Mail somewhat humorously points out, it seems there might be a bit of confusion in Ottawa as to who really is in charge of foreign affairs: John Baird or the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney. Possibly, it was ultimately decided that Health Minister and Arctic Council chairperson Leona Agglukaq might be the clearest choice to represent Canadian interests in the Arctic.

Meanwhile, for the second time, the United States sent its secretary of state to the Arctic Council. In a speech that was more notably focused on climate change than any other representative’s, John Kerry gravely called attention to record-high carbon dioxide levels, melting sea ice caps, and Arctic wildfires. The BBC notes that he held one of the first Senate hearings on climate change in the 1980s with then-Senator Al Gore. Will Kerry be able to turn his interest and rhetoric on the urgency of climate change into real action?

I don’t have an exact transcript of Kerry’s speech, but he did argue that the Arctic is shared not just by the nations that touch it. Instead, the Arctic states have a responsibility to execute stewardship in the region, which “touches every person around the world and our way of life.” W

hereas Canada tends to emphasize a more proprietary Arctic, with development benefiting northern peoples and residents, Kerry’s geopolitical framing of the Arctic reflected a vision more often promoted by Chinese officials, who occasionally talk about the region as a global commons. Both the U.S. and China, with their massive economies and reliance on shipping, have an interest in maintaing freedom of the seas.

So while they might disagree on strategic issues in the Pacific, they might be able to agree on commercial and transportation issues in the Arctic. In that case, so much for talk of conflict in the Arctic. The circumpolar north might actually be able to cool tensions in other parts of the globe.

Mia Bennett administers the Foreign Policy Association's Arctic Blog, and writes about Arctic issues for Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.