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Resource-Hungry Non-Arctic Countries Should Get Observer Seats at Arctic Council

Arctic Fox

Non-Arctic nations like China, India and Singapore, with growing interest in the resources, new potential shipping routes and environment north of the 60th parallel, should be considered for participation in the influential inter-governmental Arctic Council as Observers.

However, they must first “publicly declare [their] respect for the sovereignty of Arctic states and the rights of Arctic indigenous peoples”.

The recommendation is one of 19 offered on May 29 by one of Canada’s foremost initiatives on Arctic issues – the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program – to the Canadian government as it prepares to chair the Arctic Council in 2013.

The proposals flow from a two-day meeting in Toronto last January involving more than 100 stakeholders from 15 countries – including northern indigenous leaders and six foreign ambassadors.

The paper, “Canada as an Arctic Power: Preparing for the Canadian Chairmanship of the Arctic Council”, says the Arctic has become “the theatre for dramatic environmental, economic and political change … Media headlines trumpet the opening of new Arctic sea routes and a ‘rush’ to resource riches.”

The 16-year-old Arctic Council is “the most active inter-governmental forum on regional issues” today and has been affirmed by key northern nations as “the principal venue for discussion of Arctic issues”. May 2011’s Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue – the first legally binding agreement negotiated within the auspices of the Arctic Council – and the participation of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Nuuk, Greenland – the first ever by a U.S. Secretary of State – has increased the clout of the Council.

Full members of the Arctic Council are Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland) – the eight countries with Arctic territory. Six northern Indigenous groups – the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Arctic Athabaska Council, Gwich’in Council International, Sami Council, Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and Aleut International Association – wield strong influence as Permanent Participants. The Arctic Council is the only international organization that gives Indigenous Peoples a formal place at the table.

Six non-Arctic nations sit in as Observers: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands, joined by nine inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary organizations, and 11 NGOs.

Non-Arctic states interested in observer status include China, India, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, the European Union, and individual European nations such as Italy.

“Canadian Inuit are sensitive to the potential for being marginalized in the Council by powerful non-Arctic Observers,” the paper says, noting one indigenous leader’s worry that “no such Observer, once admitted to the Council, is ever likely to be expelled”.

However, says Janice Stein, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, if the Arctic Council “chooses to shut out the voices of other global leaders, it will jeopardize the Arctic Council as the pre-eminent forum for Arctic issues, and runs the risk that these leaders will take their issues to other forums where Arctic indigenous peoples are not adequately represented.”

Adds Sara French, Manager of the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program, “The Arctic Council must be open to other global interests in the region while maintaining at the core of its activities a concern for those who call the region home.”

The recommended condition that observers must declare respect for the sovereignty of the Arctic states and the rights of the Arctic indigenous peoples would affect the European Union’s consideration as an Observer, due to their stance on indigenous peoples hunting and selling their products on the international market.

Ms. French notes that Arctic residents are wary of China as well as a potential partner in the region. The emerging Asian powerhouse has created a research station in Norway’s northern Svalbard Islands and commissioned an 8,000 tonne icebreaker. A Chinese businessman, meanwhile, raised eyebrows late last year with a curious bid to purchase the northern-most 10 per cent of Iceland for development as a golf resort – Icelandic territory straddling the Arctic Circle. Iceland rejected the offer.

Arctic IceIn ‘Canada as an Arctic Power’, Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s minister for foreign affairs, offers a wider perspective, contending that: “Instead of having a limited discussion about forms of participation in the Arctic Council, we should broaden our scope and turn the Arctic and the Arctic Council into a modern illustration of diplomacy, showing the world how to combine regional and global interests, responsibilities and contributions.”

‘Canada as an Arctic Power’ provides some initial steps down this path, says Ms. French, adding that “these are proposals to strengthen the Arctic Council in general and we urge Canada to give them priority during its chairmanship. As well, Canada should address a variety of domestic issues – notably improving search and rescue infrastructure – in order to fully participate in and take advantage of the Arctic Council’s work.”

Other recommendations to the Canadian government regarding the Arctic Council include:

New Arctic Fisheries

Noting that the ice cap’s recent retreat is creating access to “new, largely unregulated fishing grounds” with potentially “devastating” impacts on Arctic marine life and indigenous peoples who rely on the sea, the paper’s authors call for an assessment of competing interests and existing conflict resolution mechanisms.

They underlined the recent call by 2,000 scientists for a moratorium on Arctic high seas fishing to allow time for research of catch limits and development of an integrated international Arctic fisheries management plan. While the United States and Denmark have adopted this policy, Norway, Russia and Canada have yet to do so and the scientists are especially concerned that countries such as China may soon send its fishers into these unregulated waters.

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