‘Vision for the Arctic’

After being told by President Obama that ‘the Arctic is an amazing place’ in the preface of the recently released US National Security for the Arctic Region, my attention (at least) turned to the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna. The headline news is fairly straightforward: China and five other states (mainly East Asian) are admitted as observers (not permanent however – see the SAO report to the Nuuk ministerial meeting 2011 which makes it clear that all observers are subject to review). The EU application is postponed because of the continued controversy with Canada over the seal products ban and other applicants such as Greenpeace were rejected.

Admitting China to the Arctic Council as observer rather than ad hoc observer will stir the headline writers and no doubt we will see a great many pieces this week and thereafter about China’s rising profile in the region whether it be scientific, shipping or trading related. Coupled with predictions about what China might do in the future. But to obsess about China and its interests is to miss a broader point that a second generation of observers has been admitted – if the first was European (e.g. UK, Germany and Spain) the second is noticeably dominated by Asian states such as China, South Korea and Japan. The outlier appears, in that sense, to be Italy. But it is worth recalling that Italy has had a lengthy exploratory and scientific involvement in places like Svalbard. The end result after the Swedish meeting is that the number of observers to the Arctic Council has doubled – and they are now able to attend future meetings and contribute to the work of the Council. Following the adoption of the Nuuk criteria for observers, all applicants had to recognise the sovereign rights of the Arctic states and acknowledge the Law of the Sea as the primary legal framework for the Arctic Ocean. The price for admittance, therefore, was to offer public recognition and reassurance. The decision to admit the new observers was timely in the sense that a new organisation, the Arctic Circle, was offering on the face of it new opportunities for others including China to register their Arctic interests.

One might have been forgiven for not noticing that an oil spill response agreement was signed and in so doing joins an earlier search and rescue agreement as legally binding instruments. Unlikely to satisfy the critics, the latest agreement intends to ‘The objective of this Agreement is to strengthen cooperation, coordination and mutual assistance among the Parties on oil pollution preparedness and response in the Arctic in order to protect the marine environment from pollution by oil’. And that Greenland has decided to boycott the Arctic Council in the light of a dispute with Sweden about whether it was formally recognised at the diplomatic table rather than seated behind the Danish representative.

All of this touches directly on a short document entitled ‘vision for the Arctic’ which was released in the aftermath of the ministerial meeting. After some self-congratulatory remarks in the preamble, the vision is thematised into ‘peaceful’, ‘home’, ‘prosperous’, ‘safe’, ‘healthy’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘strong’.

Under peace, the Law of the Sea is again championed as the lynchpin for future ‘peace and stability’. Under home, the use of the word ‘we’ and ‘our’ shifts awkwardly s state responsibilities and the rights of indigenous peoples are discussed. A little bit like, if one might be ever so slightly personal, the decision of the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt to don a traditional cardigan rather than a suit. At the same time when Sami representatives in Northern Sweden have been protesting against ‘Arctic mining’.

Which leads one on to the claim that ‘the economic potential of the Arctic is enormous’ under the heading ‘a prosperous Arctic’. While they may indeed be resource potential, the idea that ‘transparent and predictable rules’ (good for governments, multinationals and foreign direct investors in particular) is reconcilable with ‘sustainable Arctic economies’ is rather brushed over.  Under Canada’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2013-2015), economic development is going to to the agenda topping item but we will have to wait and see whether this makes the Arctic ‘safer’ and ‘healthy’. Interesting when the term ‘healthy’ is used it refers to the Arctic environment and climate change more generally rather than say ‘healthy communities’ – with concern expressed say communal health, subsistence lifestyles and community-environmental dynamics generally. Under knowledge, the document promises to ‘deepen the knowledge and understanding of the Arctic’ but it is not clear in this short section – what forms of knowledge and understanding are likely to prevail? Will some forms of knowledge and understanding be marginal, fail to circulate and/or sit uneasily with scientific-technical knowledge about Arctic resources, trade and shipping? By way of conclusion, the vision document reinforces the value and import of the Arctic Council (as an assemblage of sorts) as helping to constitute a ‘north star that guides our co-operation’.

But there may be signs that this ‘vision for the Arctic’ will never be straight forward. One clue comes from the seating policy at the ministerial meeting. The Greenland premier, Aleqa Hammond noted, “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. Until then, we’re putting our involvement in of the Arctic Council on hold”. While it might be tempting for some to dismiss this as a ‘domestic’ issue between Greenland and Denmark, the continued involvement and participation of indigenous peoples is vital to the long term credibility of the Arctic Council but one which is going to come under increasing strain as more and more emphasis is placed on resource development and the rights of sovereign states in the maritime Arctic in particular. Getting the seat arrangement right matters.

But there may be a bigger battle to be fought – and it is one that is as much material as it is imaginary – on the one hand, the Arctic as resource frontier and on the other, the Arctic as home. Those Sami protestors in northern Sweden may not have registered during the ministerial meeting but they do remind us that the future of the Arctic, with all its geographical, political and socio-cultural complexities, is inherently contested. Reindeer herding and mining might not mix terrible well. Oil and ice don’t mix very well either.

Little wonder, perhaps, that the ‘vision for the Arctic’ only ran to three short pages.


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