Lawson W. Brigham

The Arctic Council, intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic states, has been a positive force for good since its 1996 creation by the Ottawa Declaration. Fostering Arctic state cooperation, engaging with Arctic indigenous residents, and conducting world-class assessments on climate change, hydrocarbons, shipping, and pollution, the Council has been surprisingly forward looking in its work. But it also has been a sometimes cautious, tentative body, challenged to reach consensus on several key issues and lacking in effective, external communications. Heightened global attention on the top of the world and increasing complexity of Arctic issues demand even more thoughtful deliberations and proactive action from this body. Canada, who succeeded Sweden as the Council's Chair this past May, faces a broad array of challenges unanticipated at the inception of the Council.


One change is clear. The Arctic Council must strengthen its communication with the rest of the world. External communication has never been considered one of the Council's strengths and many of its best assessments, decisions and policies have not been well communicated to the world by timely press releases and robust communiqués. A new, futures statement from Kiruna, 'Vision for the Arctic,' is a promising start. Hopefully, a new Arctic Council Secretariat established in Tromsø, Norway will begin to correct this weakness and facilitate moving the forum's attention equally outward from a long-term, inward focus on critical Arctic issues. How Canada employs the Secretariat will be an early indicator of whether improved communication and outreach to a global audience is high on the agenda.

In an era of continued misinformation about the Arctic, Canada can make a lasting contribution to the Council's influence by enhancing its education and outreach efforts through the new Tromsø Secretariat.

A significant challenge facing Canada as Council Chair is the integration of the twelve non-Arctic state observers into the Council's work. China, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore were admitted in Kiruna, joining France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. The new observers have met criteria for admission including recognition of Council objectives and sovereignty of the Arctic states; recognition of the legal framework for the Arctic Ocean as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; and, respecting the interests and cultural heritage of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants. Despite some reservations by the Council's Permanent Participants (six Arctic indigenous organizations) regarding these admissions, all of the new, non-Arctic state observers can bring expertise and funding to the technical working groups and the Permanent Participants. Importantly, their primary role is to observe all aspects of the Council's deliberations. No other Arctic forum can provide this high level of engagement with the Arctic states. Hopefully, Canada can also coax from them contributions that can support the interests of the indigenous peoples and the working groups where the non-Arctic state observers can be most influential.

Most of the Arctic is an ocean and new marine traffic requires immediate attention by the Arctic states to address marine safety and environmental protection issues. Fortunately, Canada has been a leader in these efforts at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and these issues collectively are a key agenda theme for the Canadian Chairmanship. Also, the Council has its own policy framework for action in the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) approved by consensus of the Arctic Ministers in 2009. Continued focus on implementing AMSA's 17 recommendations - a mandatory IMO Polar Code for shipping is the most critical - would go a long way to protecting Arctic people and the marine environment. Canada, Finland and the United States led the AMSA for four years and they are conveniently the three next Council Chairs. These three states should agree to focus and coordinate their efforts on Arctic marine safety and marine environmental protection as key elements of their plans to lead the Arctic Council during the next six years. Related to these AMSA implementation efforts is a new task force on oil pollution prevention approved by the Arctic Ministers at the Kiruna Ministerial; an Arctic Council action plan and recommendations are to be developed by the next Ministerial meeting in 2015. It will be interesting to see how the work of this task force links with ongoing work of the Council's own working group on Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) and the Polar Code development at the IMO.

Attention on the Arctic's residents has always been a critical focus of the Arctic Council. The six Permanent Participants sit with the Arctic states at Council meetings and are key partners in this forum. Circumpolar health and education are critical issues as is the sustainability of life in the North. With competing uses of the Arctic Ocean, subsistence and food security are looming issues facing many Arctic coastal communities. Canada's circumpolar leadership role in focusing on an array of indigenous challenges in all Arctic regions can set a new level of engagement by the Council.

Sweden as Council chair 2011-13 made important strides in linking the commercial world to the Council. Since much Arctic change is driven by globalization and development of Arctic natural resources, it makes sense to bring the business community into the Council's work on such topics as shipping, oil and gas guidelines, sustainable development, and environmental protection. Again in Kiruna, the Arctic Ministers agreed to establish a task force whose mission is to facilitate the creation of a circumpolar business forum. Canada can help shape this forum so that it focuses on Arctic sustainable development and the promotion of long-term, sustainable Arctic communities, an objective it would appear at heart of the Canadian Chairmanship.

In assuming the Arctic Council Chair this spring, Canada faces a set of challenges and opportunities in moving the Arctic state agenda forward. Critical to Canada's success will be better communication to the world. All of the issues will require Canada's proactive action and strong consensus building among the Arctic states.


Dr. Lawson Brigham is a distinguished professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a long-time contributor to the work of the Arctic Council. During 2004-09 he was chair of the Council's Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) and Vice Chair of the Working Group Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME).

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