Lawson Brigham, Heather Exner-Pirot, Lassi Heininen and Joël Plouffe

This past Fall, the Arctic Council celebrated the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Ottawa Declaration, which established the Arctic Council as a high level forum for cooperation amongst the Arctic states, indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants, particularly with regards to sustainable development and environmental protection. We have chosen to focus this year’s edition of the Arctic Yearbook on the Arctic Council as an acknowledgment of the central role it has played in regional governance and stability-building during the past two decades.

The Arctic Council is in many ways a marvel. Perhaps the first true post-modern regional organization, representing a new kind of region-building, it has not so much blazed a trail as invented and occupied a unique space in international relations: one that has privileged cooperation and consensus to the point that it has withstood broader geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West; has provided meaningful inclusion of indigenous peoples and other non-state actors; and prioritized environmental protection using scientific and traditional knowledges as its evidence base. The Council has precipitated much discussion and speculation among policy-makers, and been a theme for many seminars, workshops and lectures, as well as a subject for many scholarly papers and commentaries, as this Yearbook shows.

It has become commonplace, for these reasons, to speak of the Arctic Council in glowing terms. But the forum has its share of imperfections, many of which are structural. As a consensus based forum with no legal character, and occupying a precarious and undeveloped level of governance, the Arctic Council has had to be satisfied with a policy shaping, as opposed to policy making, role. The Arctic Council was not designed to be effective or productive, and to the extent that it can claim to be, it has been despite its provenance. The Council was designed, rather, to foster and promote shared values and norms. In this way it has shaped the Arctic policies and actions of its members; but it has had no opportunity to push them, or hold them accountable.

In the Beginning

Many authors have recounted the origins of the Arctic Council, from Mikhail Gorbachev’s Murmansk Speech to the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), conceived by Finland; to a Canadian non-governmental panel proposing the specific concept in 1990. Several Arctic Yearbook 2016 articles further provide an overview (see in this volume for example Spence; and Escudé). But the context in which it was created, and the way this has influenced its structure, is often underappreciated. The late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed an environmental awakening on a global scale, epitomised by the Brundtland Commission and the Rio Declaration, and awareness grew that the poles were disproportionately affected by ozone depletion (particularly Antarctica) and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) (particularly the Arctic). The disintegration of the Soviet Empire, and its legacy of nuclear waste and nuclear submarine accidents, caused particular concern for the environment in northern waters, including the North Atlantic and Barents Sea region, while spurring calls for nuclear disarmament and confidence building. Meanwhile processes of devolution, both within the Nordic countries and amongst Arctic indigenous nations, were reaching their apex, and the Westphalian state was being forced to make more room for other actors.

From this perspective, one can easily identify that the vision for the Arctic Council arose as an almost perfect reflection of its political and social context. Its structure did too. The United States was in a period where it was weary of international obligations and institutions, and the burden these imposed uniquely on it. Canada, meanwhile, was embracing itself as a conscientious middle power, respectful of indigenous demands for self-determination, and seeking a leading role in the prioritization of human security as a concept for global peace and stability. The compromise was a soft law forum for regional environmental protection, but with a new focus on sustainable development, and which should not deal with matters of military security nor demand defined financial contributions of its members.

Path dependency has dictated that the Arctic Council remains relatively weak as an institution, dominated by the agendas of the working groups it absorbed from the AEPS. But at the same it has far exceeded what were probably modest hopes in 1996.

Knowledge Creation

The importance of knowledge creation by the Arctic Council during the past two decades should not be underestimated. The Council’s many assessments and focused studies have addressed such critical and diverse issues as: Arctic climate change, emerging Arctic marine use, biodiversity challenges, persistent organic pollutants, regional human development, and Arctic oil and gas developments. One of the important successes in the conduct of these comprehensive efforts has been the bringing together of experts from Arctic and non-Arctic states, as well as each study’s broad engagement with the Permanent Participants (PPs) and a host of stakeholders and actors. Taken together, the Council’s policy relevant and science-based assessments represent an unprecedented knowledge base about the Arctic environment and its people. These assessments provide a vision for future human use in the region and identify key links between the Arctic and the global environmental and economic systems.

Several of the Arctic Council assessments have been influential on the global stage. Work in AMAP on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (e.g. the AMAP Assessment Report on POPs released in 2002) contributed to the negotiations that led to the Stockholm Convention on POPs adopted in May, 2001 which went into force in May, 2004. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) released in 2004 is one of the seminal Council achievements and is surely one of the most widely read Arctic-specific documents in history. ACIA is a key synthesis review of Arctic climate change and its consequences for people, ecosystems and animals. This large effort, involving some 300 scientists, experts, and indigenous representatives, successfully integrated the social and natural sciences in a comprehensive, multidisciplinary assessment of climate change in the Arctic. ACIA found climate change to be more pervasive compared with other regions on Earth and noted fundamental feedbacks between the Arctic and the global climate system. As the world’s first in depth regional look at climate change impacts, ACIA results fed into the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (its Fourth Assessment) and continues to have influence today as it identified significant knowledge gaps in our understanding of the physical changes ongoing in the Arctic. An overarching ACIA policy document was developed by the Council’s Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs), a challenging task given that climate change is essentially a global issue with regional impacts.

The Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR) was also released in 2004, though it did not get the same publicity as the ACIA. It was one of the first human development report focused on a particular region. It involved about 30 scholars (among them the lead authors of the 11 substantive chapters) from the Arctic states, who were selected based on their expertise and represented themselves, not their countries. Though the report was done under the auspices of the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG), it does not constitute a negotiated document with contents agreed upon by all the authors. It was an independent scientific assessment on the state of human and regional development in the Arctic region.

The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), involving more than 200 marine experts, released by the Arctic Ministers in April 2009 presented 17 negotiated recommendations that collectively represent a policy framework for the Council to address measures for the protection of Arctic peoples and the marine environment. The results and recommendations of AMSA have been influential at the International Maritime Organization in moving to mandatory rules and regulations for ships operating in polar waters (the Polar Code) and in having the Arctic states negotiate (using the Arctic Council structure and process as a ‘facilitator’) two binding agreements on Arctic search and rescue, and Arctic oil spill preparedness and response. The follow-up to the AMSA recommendations has been a series of AMSA implementation status reports requested by the Arctic Ministers; a fourth report is to be issued in May 2017. The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (ABA), released in May 2013, has been an important Arctic Council product for providing information to the Convention on Biological Diversity process, with a preliminary report as a Council contribution to the 2010 United Nation’s Biodiversity Target. These select examples reinforce the importance of the Arctic Council assessments to informing and influencing international organizations that are conducting more global decision-making and environmental policy shaping. While many of the earlier Council assessments were strictly scientific reports with no formal negotiated recommendations, later work such as AMSA and the ABA include a key section where consensus was reached by the Arctic states in agreement on key recommendations for how the Council should move ahead on these critical issues.

One of the main achievements of the Council has been the effective use of its working groups to orchestrate large science-based assessments and major studies. AMAP, CAFF and PAME have been at the forefront of this process of engaging scientists and experts (both government and academic) as lead authors and contributors, and with lead countries heading the project and providing base funding. The Permanent Participants have been involved in these studies as expert participants, at the Working Group review level, and at the Senior Arctic Official (SAO) meetings where the status of projects is briefed. Arctic Council Observers from non-Arctic states, NGOs and intergovernmental organizations have been involved as well as commercial and industry experts on occasion, for example within AMSA. In response to the many calls for greater involvement of the non-Arctic Observer states, the Council should consider new mechanisms to enhance the inclusion, expertise and potential funding of future projects under the Working Groups by non-Arctic states (perhaps being a co-lead country for select projects).

In summary, the complexity, comprehensiveness, and authoritativeness of the Arctic Council’s major assessments and studies have been success stories given the high degree of international cooperation in their organization and execution.

Reform or Consolidate

Amongst the few issues that have continuously followed the Arctic Council since its establishment is the question of its structure. Should it be a forum or a treaty organization? Should it remain regionally focused and exclusive, or adopt a more global vision with broader non-Arctic representation? Should it limit itself to sustainable development and environmental protection, or should it concern itself with security, business & trade, borders and other matters of regional importance? Many changes have been proposed over the past two decades, but it is not obvious that they would change the Arctic Council for the better.

Who is a Stakeholder?

Amongst the more persistent of puzzles has been who to include as stakeholders, and how. The Arctic Council was established with a proviso for the full consultation and involvement of indigenous peoples in the Arctic, as PPs. In this regard it has been widely acclaimed as both successful and progressive. However the issue of how to enhance the capacity of PPs to participate in the Arctic Council and its many activities has similarly been longstanding, a challenge that has been exacerbated as the forum became busier and more complex.

Beyond the capacity of PPs to contribute to Arctic Council activities is their capacity to adequately engage and consult with their own indigenous members about the Council’s undertakings and priorities. Indigenous peoples are often viewed homogenously, but there are many diverse perspectives amongst and between different groups. Adequately informing community perspectives, and then reflecting those perspectives accurately, is often difficult to achieve.

Furthermore, questions have arisen as to why only indigenous organizations have been given a special status in the Arctic Council, but not representatives of northern sub-national units, such as Alaska, Greenland, the Canadian territories, the Nordic municipalities, and Russia’s republics, territories and autonomous regions. Many of these are ethnically and linguistically unique, with political legitimacy granted by their democratic election; yet there are no mechanisms by which to formally include them in the Council’s work.

Finally, has been the question of the role that Observers, and in particular non-Arctic states, can and should play in the work of the Arctic Council. Philosophically, this may depend on whether you see the Arctic through a regional lens, in which case it makes sense to privilege local interests; or a global one, whereby the Arctic has widespread environmental significance and impact that affects us all. There has been broad acceptance in recent years for non-Arctic states to be involved at the Working Group level, in the realm of scientific contributions. However while select nonArctic states have made key contributions, participation there has been half-hearted. It is worth asking whether most non-Arctic states are interested in the work of the Arctic Council, or if the Arctic Council just happens to be the best venue by which to keep apprised of – and where possible influence – Arctic geopolitical trends.

What Should the Arctic Council Do?

The Arctic Council’s twin mandates of sustainable development and environmental protection were not natural or inevitable areas of focus, but negotiated ones, and reflective of the time and space in which the forum was established. It is well worth asking after twenty years whether they should continue to be the exclusive focus, or whether other and more issues might be appropriate to address.

On that question, there has been no end of suggestions from the epistemic community, in particular military security issues, border disputes and fisheries. Indeed many of those only superficially acquainted with the work of the Arctic Council seem to think it is the governing body for the region as it is – a significant misunderstanding.

Most Arctic experts and stakeholders are cautious in this matter, and mindful of the limitations the Arctic Council and its current structure impose – as well as the advantages its clear mandate brings. First and foremost, it is a forum, with no legal character and therefore power to enact or implement laws; furthermore it is a regional-level organization, and should logically focus on those policy issues which can best be solved at the regional level. Oceans and transboundary issues are the most obvious among these, and reflected in the Council’s focus on shipping, marine and aeronautical SAR, and marine oil pollution, preparedness and response. In addition, there are mutual gains to be made by sharing and cooperating in scientific endeavours, especially in environmental matters, and sharing data and findings in an efficient and effective manner.

But it remains a puzzle how a regional-level forum can best promote sustainable development in a region encompassing eight states, several dozen sub-national polities, and many more ethnically distinct indigenous groups. Certainly the Arctic Council has no mandate or funding to implement education, health, social welfare, or infrastructure policy. More recently it has tried to promote work on economic development, but there is a gaping chasm between efforts to finance and regulate billion dollar resource projects on the one hand; and resolve the diverse issues contributing to high levels of unemployment and poverty in the region, especially in rural and indigenous communities.

There has been some momentum for jointly identifying technological solutions to some of the gaps faced in the Circumpolar North, for example in the areas of telecommunications, wastewater treatment, and renewable energy. Innovation in areas contributing to sustainable development is a promising avenue with clear benefits at the regional level, in terms of rapid knowledge transfer and the pursuance of economies of scale by which to commercialize and market technological solutions for rural, remote and off-grid communities.

What is the Role of the Arctic Council?

The Arctic Council has often been conflated with regional Arctic governance in general, as if the forum is the governing authority over all things Arctic. It is not, and should not be, and will not be. So what is the alternative?

The Arctic Council is best imagined as the centre of a web of regional governance, not atop a hierarchy. While it is widely understood as preeminent, it is not peerless. Among alternate fora for regional governance include the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, the Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, and the Arctic Five; business-led organizations such as the Arctic Economic Council, the Association of World Reindeer Herders, and the Arctic Business Forum; sub-national organizations such as the Northern Forum, the PNWER Arctic Caucus, and the Barents-Euro Arctic Council; scientific & research organizations such as the University of the Arctic (UArctic) with its Thematic Networks, the International Arctic Social Sciences Association, and the International Arctic Science Committee; relevant international organizations such as the Commission on the Limitations of Continental Shelf and the International Maritime Organization; as well as a few international forums that actualize the interplay between science and politics (and business) such as the Northern Research Forum (NRF), Arctic Frontiers, and the Arctic Circle Assembly.

The Arctic Council is best placed to produce, disseminate and act on knowledge, both in respect to environmental systems and protection, and social and economic development for the region’s four million inhabitants. It has also been, and should continue to be, an important generator of norms, particularly around the principles of political cooperation and consensus building; inclusivity of indigenous peoples, the scientific community, and other non-state actors; and the need to value and protect our environmental heritage. With this as an overarching framework, the details can be assumed by more specialized or appropriate organizations.

This Year's Arctic Yearbook

This year’s Arctic Yearbook provides perhaps the most substantial evaluation of the Arctic Council ever published. In the section on the Arctic Council as an institution, our authors evaluate the Council’s ability to norm-set and identify emerging issues; its proficiency in creating space for Indigenous organizations as Permanent Participants, and non-Arctic states and NGOs as Observers; and media perceptions of its work. Taken together, the reader will better understand the constructed nature of the Arctic Council.

The section on the interplay between science, diplomacy and policy helps illuminate how and why science can inform policymaking – perhaps one of the better known and celebrated accomplishments of the Arctic Council. Creating intersections between the three is almost always desirable but rarely easy.

Local and indigenous issues have been a perpetual topic for the Arctic Council, but it has been marked by tension between competing levels – local, national, regional and global – of governance and interests. What can and should the Arctic Council do to make space for different voices, while still making tangible progress on substantive issues?

We round off the scholarly component with a section on Arctic geopolitics and security, the raison d’être of the Arctic Yearbook and the joint NRF/UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Geopolitics and Security which directs its publication. Throughout the past five years, we have endeavoured to provide pragmatic, robust and sober analysis of the state of relations between the Arctic states, in particular Russia and the Rest. Headlines come and go, and come back again, but our authors provide much needed nuance to what are overwhelmingly superficial assessments of regional security in the mainstream media and corresponding grey literature.

As always, we have paired our scholarly, full-sized articles with both Briefing Notes to provide succinct explanations of Arctic phenomena and issues of contemporary significance; as well as Commentaries by esteemed and influential decision-makers and experts that provide unique insight into the events and trends that captured our interest this past year. We are proud and grateful for the willingness of those in the Arctic epistemic community to contribute their knowledge and insights towards a higher level of dialogue – a defining feature of the work of the Arctic Council and regional Arctic governance more broadly, which we are thankful to also benefit from.


What more can the Arctic Council provide than an example? In the next twenty years, the authors would like to see it use its policy shaping, knowledge disseminating and norm building powers to: (1) address sustainable development issues through innovative applications of technology and engineering to a northern context, including promoting the capacity of northerners themselves to be fully involved in such efforts; (2) better incorporate the voices of sub-national governments in the work of the Council, especially as it seeks a more prominent role in addressing issues of development; and of mitigating rather than simply adapting to climate changes; and (3) to entrench the cooperative relations it has enjoyed between Russia and the other, Western, states, even in the face of incongruent foreign policy actions elsewhere in the world.

Although it faces many challenges, the Arctic Council can be heralded, after twenty years, as a marvel: the world’s first, and only, post-modern international organization. It is a model for EastWest cooperation; for stability-building and region-building; for creating space for non-state actors’ voices; for proactively, and precautionarily, addressing issues of environmental protection; and for incorporating scientific evidence in to its policy shaping structures. It is not perfect; but we would contend that it is the closest thing we have to perfection in international relations.

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