Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Alaskan Arctic Ad Hoc Working Group - A Roundtable Discussion

Anchorage, 20 August 2003


Mr. President, Mr. Lieutenant-Governor,
Governor Hickel, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to have the opportunity on the occasion of the President}s visit to discuss with this high-powered group the work of the Arctic Council, including, in particular, the Icelandic Chairmanship programme.

You may not be aware of this, but next year will mark the 130 years} anniversary of the first and the last project to set up an Icelandic colony in Alaska.

It was in 1874, only seven years after the Alaska purchase, that a young Icelander, Jón Ólafsson, visited these shores. On his arrival in the United States he had met a New York lawyer (never a good omen, I suppose!), who sold him in on the idea of establishing an Icelandic colony in Alaska. So young impressionable Ólafsson enlisted in the U.S. navy and was registered as a "landsman for special service" onboard the U.S.S. Portsmouth, bound for Alaska from San Fransisco. During his visit, he became particularly impressed with the island of Kodiak, where he made diligent inquiries. Back on the Eastern coast, Ólafsson and his lawyer friend then made a petition to President Grant. Ólafsson also wrote a book on Alaska, published in Washington in 1875, and even got a bill put before Congress to promote the Icelandic Alaska project. But nothing came of it, in part because the Canadian government pre-empted the deal by offering land to the Icelanders in Manitoba. But then you may also like to bear in mind that the young rapscallion was only 23 years of age and did not, as far as anyone knows, have a mandate from his compatriots to set up an Icelandic colony. But I dare say he enjoyed his visit at least as much as I am enjoying mine.

At the time of the Alaska purchase, many entertained similar ideas about Alaska as some would now apply to the Arctic as a whole, in other words as being cold, barren and uninhabitable. Those ideas have been proven wrong in Alaska and we are gradually also proving them wrong in the Arctic as well.

The Arctic, as everyone here knows, is an enormous area, sprawling over one sixth of the earths} landmass and twenty-four time zones. It has a population of less than four million, including over thirty different indigenous peoples and dozens of native languages. Therefore, no one should be surprised to find that it is not easy to have a sense of common identity, let alone common destiny, for a region so vast and varied.

At the same time, we, the eight member states and the permanent participants, are slowly forging a stronger sense of shared interests and objectives, mainly through various concrete working programmes. We do have a voice in the international community, a circumpolar voice, through the Arctic Council and this voice is gradually being heard with more effect.

Many would argue that the Arctic Council is too weak institutionally to make much of a difference, since it is not an organization proper and has no legal personality. It is true that we are doing work in some quite unorthodox ways. But we have also demonstrated that results can be obtained without a cumbersome beaurocracy or layers upon layers of international civil servants. I would not want to disparage those who would prefer to have an Arctic Council permanent secretariat - in Alaska or elsewhere. But you will not find Iceland, during its term of office, making any excuses for the way we do work in the Arctic Council.

Let me now turn to the main goals of the Icelandic chairmanship. First off, they can be no different from those of the Arctic Council itself. The main focus of the Arctic Council will continue to be on the environment - on monitoring, assessment and protection. We must continue to support AMAP and CAFF, two working groups whose reports on pollution and biodiversity showcase some of the best work we have done.

However, some of the processes documented in those reports are beginning to impact the lives and the livelihoods of people in the Arctic region. The Arctic remains a clean environment, as AMAP points out. Nevertheless, some pollutants give reason for concern in certain ecosystems and for some human populations. Also, we are witnessing the effects climate change is having on local communities, economies, resource utilization, infrastructure and human health. Add to this the pressures that economic activities, including shipping, dumping and the exploitation of oil and gas are bringing to bear on the Arctic environment; issues that have been studied by another of our working groups, the EPPR.

Add this up and you begin to understand why it is not a moment too soon for the Arctic Council to squarely turn its attention to the social, economic and cultural dimensions of life in the Arctic. At their meeting in Inari, Ministers decided to launch, under Iceland}s lead, the Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), to be completed by the fall of 2004. This will be the first comprehensive study of living conditions in the Arctic and should give a welcome boost, in particular, to the future work of the SDWG.

I would not wish to be misunderstood, because I might have given you the impression that a major reason why we want to play up the "human dimension" was that the Arctic region has somehow been "victimized"; that Iceland looks at the region primarily as a habitat or oasis that now has begun to be encroached upon by industrial activity.

That would be the wrong impression to give. Through the AHDR we also want to dwell on the success stories and best practices holding possible lessons for others. Here we have many things to learn from Alaska. I know the President has appreciated, during his visit, the positive and robust vision that Alaskans have of developing the potential of their commons and how confident they are of being able to reconcile utilization with conservation. It is certainly a refreshing antidote to the tales of gloom and doom that we sometimes hear.

During its term of office, Iceland would also like to accentuate the positive and highlight new opportunities. For this reason we have focussed on modern telecommunications and information technology as a means of enabling people to prosper and thrive in the highly dispersed communities of the North. To this end, we are organizing a conference on distance education and telemedicine in Iceland later this year.

Another main strand of our programme is to examine how best we can coordinate and maximize to our mutual benefit the different areas of Arctic research.

Two other projects that are not part of the chairmanship programme as such, but largely coincide with it, should be mentioned. The Arctic is predominantly a marine area. It holds some of the most important seas in the world for commercial fisheries, in addition to having an integral role in world climatic processes. Therefore, it is important that the Arctic Council has decided to develop a strategic plan for the protection of the Arctic marine environment. This project, led by Canada and Iceland, will be co-ordinated by yet another of our working groups, PAME. As part of the planning process the lead countries will host an Arctic Sea Workshop in October.
There is also the so-called Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) due to be completed by the fall of next year. Earlier this month, representatives of the member states met in Svalbard to for a kind of an informal mid-term review. It emerged from the conversation that climate change will in all likelihood affect every aspect of life in the Arctic. The hydrological system, the biosphere, infrastructure, livelihoods and human health will all be impacted. Therefore, come September 2004, we will want to have the scientific part of the ACIA completed, in addition to a policy document including recommendations regarding possible action to take in response to those changes.

Finally, I want to go back to what I said earlier about the Arctic Council as an instrument for getting things done. The success of the Arctic Council will eventually be measured in terms of the difference it can make in peoples lives. As a forum, we are obviously "doing" some things to that end. Take for example the programmes undertaken by ACAP to eliminate harmful substances and contribute to cleaner production methods. But the Arctic Council was never meant to execute all on its own the tasks it takes upon itself. We have also served a generative or catalytic function, drawing upon the member states themselves, regional and international organizations, in implementing the relevant action programmes. This has been necessary, if only because the sources of some of the problems we are dealing with are in large part global.

This, by the way, is why any occupant of the Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials will find himself spending a great deal of his time on the road. He is in some ways like a travelling salesman, taking our message to organizations like the UN, UNEP, FAO and the EU, without whose support we will not be able to deal adequately with the issues that affect the region.

In a sense my countryman was also a salesman when he visited Anchorage in 1874. But unlike Ólafsson, who neither had a product to sell nor a mandate from his government, the Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials will normally reassure himself of having both his goods and his marching orders not from one - but from eight different governments.


Contact us

Tip / Query
Please answer in numerics