Speech by H.E. Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland
Wilson Center, Washington DC, 23. May 2019
Iceland and the Arctic: Iceland´s Chairmanship in the Arctic Council 2019-2021
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be with you here today in the beautiful city of Washington, at this distinguished institution, and to get the opportunity to share with you our vision for the future of the Arctic region as well as some insights into Iceland’s priorities during our two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
But I want to begin by mentioning your important work here at the Wilson Center. The Center’s approach on its subject matters, offering high-quality views on issues of real international importance, has seldom been as relevant as in today’s increasingly complex world. We need inter-disciplinary approaches to be able to fully understand the challenges we face and to seize the opportunities that rapid changes in our region bring about.
And we are fortunate that Mr. Sfraga is both the Head of the Wilson Center’s Global Risk and Resilience Programme and the Director of the Center’s Polar Institute, because I know that sustainable development is at the heart of the work of both the GRRP and the Polar Institute.
This is important. Truly. Because sustainable development may in fact be the single most important element to reduce tensions and alleviate risks of escalation in the Arctic region. I will come back to that later.
Iceland assumed the role of Chair of the Arctic Council just two weeks ago from our Finnish partners, who successfully concluded their term at a Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland.
Iceland is taking over the chairmanship at a crucial time for the Arctic regions. With the prospects of new oceans and coastlines opening up, key global actors are focusing their attention to the region. We see this in both international and regional politics, in academia and business. And this has, indeed, created a new reality for all of us. But while the interests at stake are high, we must all maintain a cool head and keep our feet firmly on the ground.
First, let’s look at some facts. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at more than twice the average global rate and Arctic warming trends are expected to continue towards the mid-century. According to scientists, trends after 2050 will depend on today’s mitigating actions.
In Iceland, we feel and see the effects of this with changes in the migration and availability of fish stocks in our waters and with retreating glaciers around the country. Moreover, we know that melting sea ice and ocean acidification put the entire marine ecosystems at risk. Adaptation to these changes will be challenging, not only for most communities in the North but globally, making regional and international co-operation vital. And we need deliberate responses. Responses guided by the fundamental principle of sustainable development and decisions based on scientific research and knowledge.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Before I delve into the Arctic Council Chairmanship Programme, I would like to offer some reflections and an Icelandic perspective on the changed geostrategic situation and challenges facing us in the High North.
First, all actors in the Arctic are dependent on close and peaceful cooperation that stretches across borders and boundaries. Beyond the national jurisdictions of the Arctic Council Member States the Arctic region is, in fact, governed in a co-operative manner primarily through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Peaceful co-operation in the Arctic should continue to be at the forefront as we better realize the ever-growing opportunities that lie in the region. But we also need to be aware of the threats and challenges that face us in the Arctic and the effects they could have both locally and globally.
Geography presents us with strategic facts. Iceland is located centrally in the North-Atlantic with Greenland to the West and the Faroe Islands, the UK and Norway to the East. The Arctic Circle touches Iceland´s northern tip and straight lines can be drawn through the Atlantic respectively to the North and South Poles. This geostrategic location has largely determined Iceland´s security policy since the mid-20th Century.
It was then, with the development of naval technology, particularly submarines, and later aviation, including long-range aircraft, that Iceland became a strategic hub and the trans-Atlantic link was born. During the Cold War, secure communications between North America and Europe became fundamental to the credibility and viability of NATO.
In 2006 the US forces withdrew from Iceland and, virtually on the same day, Russia chose to resume its strategic bomber flights into the Icelandic airspace. In recent years this has called for enhanced forward presence in Europe, exercises and capability developments with increased defence budgets. Sea-lines of communication and strategic air corridors across the Atlantic are also getting more attention within the Alliance. Most recently, this also extends to securing underwater cables, which provide essential electronic communications.
Ladies and gentlemen,
How does this affect Iceland? As the only founding member of NATO without armed national forces, Iceland relies on Article 5 and a bilateral Defence Agreement with the US. Nonetheless, we contribute in many different ways to our national and common defence within the Alliance, through civilian capabilities, personnel and experience, and have our own perspective on security developments in our region in a broad sense. This is reflected in our National Security Policy, which enjoys cross-party support and sets the framework for the security and defence policy of our broadly-based coalition Government.
Successive Icelandic governments have expressed their hope that the Arctic would not be militarized beyond the levels seen following the end of the Cold War - a position that is manifested in our Arctic Policy from 2011, which was also adopted through a consensus across the political spectrum. As others, we recognize Russia’s right to safeguard their legitimate security interests in the region with credible defence capabilities. However, the scope, speed and apparent ambition of the Russian military build-up in the Arctic does raise questions.
In our view, military build-up in the High North needs to be avoided. This point cannot be overstated. Reaching common understandings and solutions, while respecting international laws that govern the region and maintaining the stability that has, so far, characterized the region, is of interest and benefit to us all.
Increased attention and activities of non-Arctic states in the region have also drawn attention. Asian states have shown keen interest in the work of the Arctic Council with China, India, Japan, South-Korea and Singapore all joining the Observers group of the Arctic Council in 2013.
This increased interest is moreover reflected in policy making in states such as China and in organizations such as the European Union, mirroring a substantial change in international priorities from what they were just 15 years ago.
A warming climate and the resulting opening up of sea routes, easier access to natural resources and possible security threats resulting from increased traffic in the area pose new challenges and make it increasingly important to ensure that the Arctic remains a low-tension area. This is best done through multilateral collaboration and dialogue. It is not least for this reason that the Arctic Council will have an increasingly important role to play in years and decades to come.
This new reality facing us in the Arctic is reflected in the Arctic Council’s developing international role as the central forum for co-operation in the region. While the Arctic Council does not address military security, the conflictual elements that may result from the opening-up of the Arctic make the Council’s contribution to sustainable development in the region increasingly relevant.
The Arctic Council is an important venue for dialogue and peaceful co-operation in the Arctic region. Its clear mandate and regional focus on sustainable development and knowledge-building has allowed it to continue its work, irrespective of global political tensions. This is not least because of the emphasis put on the quality of the work of the Council and its subsidiary bodies.
In this respect I truly believe that an active dialogue, based on best available scientific research and knowledge, conducted through dynamic collaboration between our countries and organizations, is the best way forward for a constructive development of the Arctic Council. Iceland will continue to emphasise this during our Chairmanship in the Arctic Council, and we welcome the US increased interest in the region.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Arctic Council’s focus on sustainable development, and the scientific and policy work that has been carried out by its subsidiary bodies, has yielded important discussions and results on a variety of issues. The Arctic Council has, for instance, increased and broadened our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, and enabled us to make informed decisions on how we approach the region’s environment and resources. This has also proven relevant to states outside the Arctic, which may explain growing interest in obtaining observer status in recent years.
The Arctic Council is running numerous ambitious projects, which will continue during our Chairmanship. In our priorities we will highlight certain aspects of the Council’s already ambitious agenda as well as introducing new fields of co-operation through specific projects.
As I alluded to earlier, sustainable development will be the guiding light in our Chairmanship program and our heading: Together Towards a Sustainable Arctic, emphasises the need for harmonized international efforts. Moreover, we highlight the need for a holistic approach to sustainable development, addressing equally each of its three pillars - the environment, the economy as well as the social aspect. In our Chairmanship program we have highlighted four main priority areas.
First, and not entirely surprisingly, the Arctic marine environment. The Oceans will figure at the heart of our program. The largest part of the Arctic region is covered by ocean, and the welfare of a large part of the population in the Arctic is based on the sustainable utilization of marine resources. The Arctic Council ‘s subsidiary bodies have carried out many important ocean-related projects and Iceland will focus on further development of projects in that field.
Iceland is particularly interested in strengthening Arctic Council co-operation on mitigating plastic pollution of the oceans and is planning an international scientific conference on the topic in Reykjavík Iceland in April 2020.
Iceland also wants to introduce a new project focusing on innovation and efficient utilization of marine biological resources, or the so-called Blue Bio-Economy. Experience has shown that through innovation and biotechnological solutions it is possible to increase significantly the utilization level of biomass taken out of the ocean. Through successful application of the method it provides for positive outcomes for the environment, it strengthens the economy and has positive effect in the communities.
Our second priority concerns climate and green energy solutions. We will maintain an emphasis on meteorological co-operation. In that respect I would like to mention explicitly a project on mapping glaciers and providing more accurate information on the dramatic glacial reduction being witnessed in our part of the world.
The impending shift in energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be important, both for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for improving air quality in Arctic communities. The only answer is to cut emissions immediately and I want to commend the US on their demonstrated achievements in reducing black carbon emissions.
It is a challenge to provide green solutions for energy production in remote communities in the Arctic, but this should be a high priority. Iceland will emphasize continuing to seek practical green energy solutions - focusing specifically on small communities in the Arctic.
The Arctic has historically been bountiful in renewable energy. In Iceland, we speak from first-hand experience as we have been fortunate enough to be able to harvest geothermal and hydropower for decades. There are mainly three viable alternatives in the Arctic. Firstly, hydropower, which constitutes over 70% of Iceland’s stationary resources. Second, geothermal power, found in various parts of the Arctic and which provides for all space-heating in Iceland and, finally, wind power. Moreover, there is huge potential in cutting emissions by using renewable energy on ships. Technology related to alternative fuels for ships is already being developed in Iceland and Icelandic fishing and shipping companies are making progressive changes in their operation.
Our third main priority will be to support Arctic societies in building prosperous and sustainable communities. A more accessible Arctic will stimulate economic activities, both with regards to marine transport and tourism. Growing marine traffic in the Arctic will require better infrastructure to ensure acceptable safety standards. The polar code for Arctic shipping is in place but safety in navigation is hampered in many areas due to lack of reliable charts and other aids. Lack of telecommunications is also of great concern for large areas in the Arctic. Improvements in telecommunications improve both safety at sea, including search and rescue activities, and living conditions in Arctic communities that have very limited telecommunication services.
Most communities in the Arctic will face difficult choices when adapting to the environmental changes, not least small communities and the indigenous people. The Arctic Council has already undertaken some expert work on possible changes that might call for adaptation measures and we will continue co-operation on matters like gender equality, connectivity and adaptation and resilience. Such analysis is highly valuable for policy makers and the Council will do even more to collect best practices that communities could benefit from.
Last but not least, Iceland will continue to work for a stronger Arctic Council, giving due attention to its inner workings and maintaining close consultations between Member States and the Permanent Participants as well as continuing to use innovative ways to enhance engagement with the Arctic Council Observers.
We will also focus on forming new partnerships. The Arctic Economic Council will celebrate its five years anniversary during Iceland’s Chairmanship, and we plan to seize the opportunity to enhance the collaboration between the two Councils. Moreover, we aim at making the most of the fact that Iceland will also be chairing the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, an extremely important actor when debating security, search and rescue in an increasingly open and busy Arctic waters.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Looking ahead, trying to envisage what the future could hold in store for us, we know that scientific research indicates that we can expect more drastic changes to the Arctic environment in the next two decades than in the past hundred years. Even a fully implemented Paris Agreement is not expected to curb global warming until after the middle of the 21st Century. Arctic ice will therefore continue to melt and ice-free marine areas will grow during the summer months.
In order to ensure continued stability in the Arctic a race for resources must be avoided. Not only because of the obvious mutual benefits of sustainable use of natural resources, affecting both future economic interests and social development in the region, but also because it could threaten stability and peace in the Arctic and the North Atlantic. It continues to be paramount that international law and norms prevail. All those present in the region, Arctic states as well as others, should be held to a high standard and provocation avoided.
Maintaining a healthy, sustainable and prosperous Arctic region is of vital, international importance. The potential is great but so are the challenges. Developments in the Arctic region offer us, the Arctic states, an opportunity to demonstrate how responsible global actors can and should interact, following international principles and norms enshrined in international treaties, laws and agreements.
If we are fortunate enough to keep the Arctic cool – and I am an optimist and I know that we are – we will remain, for decades and centuries to come, truly, on top of the world.