Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Arctic Council

Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs, Halldor Asgrimsson, on the Arctic Council
University of Akureyri, 7 May 2002


Ladies and Gentlemen:
This autumn Iceland assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for the next two years. The collaboration of the member states in the Arctic Council in the area of environmental concerns began eleven years ago when they agreed to a plan to protect the environment in the arctic region. This collaboration later led to the establishment of the Arctic Council six years ago. It was no accident that the collaboration of those nations that own land in the arctic began at this time. The end of the Cold War and the development of democracies in central and eastern Europe made it possible for us to work with our neighbours to the east in a totally different way than had been possible before. The arctic area attracted increased interest in the wake of a changed image of the world, not least because of the political, scientific and economic possibilities that the area offers.

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson's vision

The idea of the mutual interest of the arctic nations was actually not new. This is in fact an old idea that no one defined better than the well-known explorer Vilhjálmur Stefánsson who wrote about it in his lifetime. Stefánsson felt that with a knowledge of the environment of the arctic and by acquiring the ability to adjust to the conditions of the area, people could make excellent use of the many qualities and the beauty that the area has to offer. The arctic harbours a great deal of riches, both in the form of natural resources and human resources. The Arctic Council is the forum of the arctic nations to strengthen these resources and to promote sustainable development. With this collaboration we have to look to the opportunities the region has to offer. The key to the solution of various problems is successful social and economic development and a positive adjustment to the arctic region's natural environment.

We Icelanders to a large extent live off of nature's bounty ? fishing, geothermal and hydroelectric power production, agriculture and tourist services. With ingenuity, knowledge and enterprise we have utilised nature and built here a modern society comparable to the best known.

Our natural landscape is barren and the weather often harsh, but despite this we Icelanders do not look on the arctic areas as marginal or isolated. All of the Icelandic economy takes place in the far north, with the largest part based on the utilisation of natural resources. If resources are not utilised in a self-sustaining way, the viability of our society will be threatened. Sustainable utilisation of natural resources is therefore basic for Iceland. A nation whose welfare is, to a considerable degree, dependent on the quality of its natural environment cannot afford to do other than to treat it with respect. We Icelanders have aligned ourselves with those nations who wish to be considered top among those who are building up a sustainable future.

Human resources and sustainable development

Our relations with nature and the power of nature are both direct and closer than is often the case in modern societies. It is important for us to master nature, which has so often treated us harshly. In order to do this we need to utilise the human resources in our country and increase knowledge and skills. It is important that scientific knowledge and technology are utilised to give the inhabitants control over the conditions and resources of our homeland. Sustainable development of our arctic areas is built, among other things, on education and international scientific and technological knowledge that is adjusted to the local circumstances by being based on local research and developmental work, as well as on training human resources to tackle the projects in each place. Research for the benefit of sustainable development in the northern areas must therefore be based both on international scientific research and on the experience of the local people.

A clear example of this is that we have succeeded in applying modern technology, science and management to the sustainable utilisation of our productive fishing grounds. Our marine fishing policy has attracted considerable attention abroad. It has been often pointed to as one of the few fishing policies in the world that supports the self-sustaining utilisation of fish stocks at the same time as protecting profitability to the fullest.

Another example is the fact that about 70% of the energy we Icelanders use is from renewable resources. With the utilisation of the potential for generating energy in Iceland we have built up large scale industry that few can match.

The Icelandic nation is unanimous in agreeing that we must utilise our natural resources in a responsible way and that the Icelandic economy must meet the demands of sustainable development. We can see to various ways here at home to accomplish this goal, but the fact is that we cannot achieve this alone. We live in a world of globalization and are therefore constantly dependent on currents and influences from abroad. I hardly need to mention the consequences that would result if the sea were polluted with radioactivity. The market for our fish would disappear at once.

International currents

International currents and policies have a considerable influence on our position in the community of nations and our chances of utilising our valuable natural resources. It is vital that we take an active role in formulating opinions and policy goals about these problems in an international forum.

In my work as cabinet minister and minister of parliament I have emphasised collaboration with those in nearby areas and especially the circumpolar regions. We Icelanders must emphasise working together with the nations bordering the arctic seas that have similar interests concerning the utilisation and preservation of natural resources.

The Canadians played a key role in the establishment of the Arctic Council at that time. I emphasised at once that Iceland should participate fully in this co-operative venture. This is collaboration which we must participate in as we find ourselves here with allies sharing our views on the utilisation of natural resources, the importance of the ocean to our earnings, the improvement of the quality of life, and the building of communities.

In 1992 I presented a proposal to the Nordic Council concerning increased collaboration in the arctic region. I was chairman at one time of a committee that brought about interaction between the ministers of parliament in the arctic countries. It is extremely important for us to work together with those nations that understand the problems of the region, and it must also be a strong priority in Icelandic foreign policy to see to this.

Importance of the arctic areas

Nature has provided the arctic with bountiful resources and humankind for thousands of years has lived off these riches. Among the resources that are not self-sustaining are petroleum, coal, metals and gems. The sustainable resources include rich fishing grounds that are among the largest in the world, and powerful rivers which support a large stock of freshwater fish and are utilised to generate electricity. I want also to mention the vast, untouched landscape which is becoming an ever-rarer asset in an urbanized and technologized world.

The arctic areas also perform an important role in the earth's ecosystem. The region stores a huge part of the earth's freshwater supplies and the peat layers in the tundra are important for binding carbon from the air. The arctic is also home to a special fauna and flora and to special indigenous cultures.

These areas are not only rich with the bounty of nature but also in human resources. We need to make use of these human resources in order to utilise the potential that the region offers. We need to make use of the opportunities that technological progress and globalization are creating for us in order to strengthen the region's growth and welfare.

The Arctic Council and sustainable development

As I mentioned, Iceland takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council next autumn. The history of the Arctic Council is not very long, as it was founded in 1996 by the joint declaration of eight nations: the USA, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia and Sweden, in addition to the main associations of indigenous peoples who have permanent partnership in the Council. I had the opportunity to participate in the establishment of the Council.

With the establishment of the Arctic Council the collaborative efforts of these countries were expanded from being only concerned with environmental problems to cover economic and social concerns as well. Sustainable development became the main emphasis of the co-operative effort. The Arctic Council is therefore first and foremost a forum for collaboration of the member states and the associations of indigenous peoples for sustainable development of the arctic region.

Sustainable development means simply that we live in harmony with our environment and our society and leave the land in better shape for our descendants. With sustainable development we seek a way to maximize economic and social well-being without damaging the basic quality of the earth or the possibility of coming generations to enjoy the same kind or better welfare than we have. Sustainable development is thus hardly a blind environmental policy but rather a policy that focuses on humankind and human welfare.

The concept emphasises that protection of the natural environment is the prerequisite of continued economic development and the welfare of mankind, and at the same time that a flourishing economy and social welfare are the prerequisites for the environment to be protected and the natural resources utilised in a responsible way that will allow them to last. Therefore we must continually examine our operations and decisions on economic, social and environmental concerns in context

Collaboration through the Arctic Council has always been built on a scientific basis. Detailed assessment of pollution in the arctic areas has been carried out, together with an extensive appraisal of the protection and status of biological diversity in the area, under the direction of CAFF, which has its offices here in Akureyri. A detailed plan for the protection of the sea has been put together by PAME, which also has its offices here in Akureyri. An extensive assessment of the effect of climate change in the arctic is now being carried out. These are all large projects that deepen our understanding of the arctic environment and furnish a basis for informed decision making on how best to treat the region.

I have here spoken about a part of the work of the Arctic Council that concerns the environment. Other collaborative projects undertaken by the Council, that is, collaboration on the social, economic and cultural aspects of sustainable development, on the other hand have a shorter history. In my opinion these aspects need increased attention and development. During our time of chairmanship of the Arctic Council we wish to emphasise development of the role of the Arctic Council in relation to these concerns, first and foremost the standard of living of people in the arctic region.

Life in the arctic region

In our effort to strengthen the work of the Arctic Council concerning the social, economic and cultural factors and at the same time our endeavour to approach the vision of Vilhjálmur Stefánsson regarding the polar areas, as I mentioned before, we shall promote the compilation of an extensive report on human life and community and economic development in the arctic region.

The Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region have already taken care of various preparatory efforts for this collaboration and hope that the Arctic Council will carry on with implementation of the project. The report is intended to take account of the United Nations Human Development Report, in addition to the new reports resulting from collaboration of arctic states on pollution control, the protection and status of biological diversity, and the effect of climate change in the arctic. The plan is to produce an overview of key factors and the welfare of the peoples in the arctic regions. The report will call attention to the many and varied factors involved in sustainable development and prosperity in the north, both among the native peoples and other inhabitants of the area. The social, cultural and economic welfare of the inhabitants of the north and their connection with sustainable development and the utilisation of the natural resources of the circumpolar regions will thereby become a focal concern.

There is now a draft of the form and subject matter of this watershed report, which the Vilhjálmur Stefánsson Institute has borne the brunt of preparing. It is my hope that this proposal will be agreed at the meeting of the ministers of the Arctic Council in Inari next autumn, when Iceland assumes the Council chairmanship.

It is my hope that the report will be comparable to the assessment that has been carried out on the region's environment and that it will form the basis for well-grounded work on assessing the social and economic conditions of the region. The report may also continue to be used as a guideline for development, in addition to the fact that the work will increase the knowledge and understanding of sustainable development of human life among persons in authority and the general public within and outside of the region. Such an extensive work should facilitate the definition of joint projects, improvements and opportunities regarding the living conditions, welfare and range of choices available to people living in the arctic.

Importance of the University of Akureyri

In discussing the strengthening of human resources I want to draw special attention to the innovative work that the University of Akureyri has carried out. The University have built up good departments in many important fields. It is not least for the varied and productive collaboration with economic factors and research institutions that the University of Akureyri has gained the good reputation it has. The University's operations are directly related to the needs of the community and there is therefore considerable demand for the school's graduates.

The University of Akureyri have utilised modern information technology and offer distance learning courses. As an example of excellent results, next month the University will grant diplomas to nine nurses who have all studied via distance learning in Ísafjordur. Thus the University is meeting the needs of these communities for people specially trained in this field. It is particularly gratifying that the number of students taking distance learning courses has greatly increased in the last few terms.

Here at the University of Akureyri emphasis has been placed on collaboration with universities abroad, among others with the University of the Arctic. The University of the Arctic is the collaborative effort of several universities in the arctic region and offer cross-disciplinary and international instruction in subjects related to the region that began this spring with the introductory course leading to the B.A. and B.S. degrees. It should be noted that both the Vilhjálmur Stefánsson Institute and the University of Akureyri have contributed grately to the preparation for this course. Emphasis is placed on distance learning with secure Net connections, and exchange of students and teachers between the universities. The University of the Arctic is not under the aegis of the Arctic Council but I have great hopes for this project, which may be called a university for the benefit of sustainable development in the north, and feel that the Arctic Council in the future should actively support it.

Internal collaboration

The use of information technology, for example for instruction, to strengthen public health services, for the creation of economic opportunities and for strengthening services, is a worthwhile endeavour in the northern region. The inhabitants of the area all need access to efficient communication systems with sufficient power so that information technology can be utilised to help provide better living conditions. In order to get results in building up such a system it is important to reach the local authorities and educational institutions of the member nations in the Arctic Council and to get them to participate in work that will benefit the inhabitants of the northern region. Increased participation of the general public, not least of young people, in efforts that are aimed at strengthening sustainable development in the area will lead to increased knowledge of the joint interests of those in the region and make it possible for the inhabitants to be doers rather than acceptors in those matters that have a direct influence on the quality of life.

In this connection increased collaboration between the Arctic Council and the Northern Forum. One of the prerequisites of sustainable development is that all levels of administration be responsible for taking into account the point of view of sustainable development and that they work together with the economy and the state governments in making the idea viable.

Research, science and technological knowledge are decisive for building up the standard of living in the arctic region. It is worthwhile to ascertain the possibilities for strengthening the relations and co-operative undertakings of those parties who see to research on the concerns of the arctic region. It is important that scientific knowledge and technology are utilised in such a way that the inhabitants gain control of the conditions and natural resources of their homelands. Research for the benefit of sustainable development in the arctic needs therefore to be based both on international scientific research and also on the experience of the local people. One aspect that collaboration in the forum of the Arctic Council can bring about is connections within the scientific society. Strengthening of relations between these parties can motivate co-operation in the area of research and pave the way for multifaceted research and educational planning.

We might consider collaboration between research institutions on the conditions and utilisation of natural resources. One example in this connection is the Chukotka district in one of the member nations in the Arctic Council, Russia. This area has valuable natural resources, not least in the Bering Sea, where there are a large number of fish stocks that have not been exploited. One factor that has hindered the utilisation of these stocks is the lack of a sufficient scientific database. A considerable amount of collaboration has already been entered into in the area of marine fishing and the utilisation of geothermal energy between Icelandic parties and the authorities in this area, and this collaboration is being developed further. Here we Icelanders can provide some of our specialist knowledge in the area of ocean research, marine fishing and the utilisation of geothermal energy, and here too the member nations in the Arctic Council can work together on research projects.

It would be very meaningful to strengthen collaboration between the research funds of the member nations of the Arctic Council especially. In this way joint financing of research plans and projects in the arctic region could be facilitated. Continuing collaboration between the Arctic Council and the European Union in the area of research is also necessary. Nor is it farfetched to explore the possibility of strengthening ties and co-operation between the European Union and the United States that aim at collaboration between the institutions which see to concerns in the arctic region.

Increased participation of the general public and the educational institutions in effecting sustainable development is extremely important. It is important that Iceland's chairmanship of the Arctic Council be used to strengthen ties with various institutions in the area. In this connection we can consider increased ties between the Arctic Council and various projects and associations which support the participation of students and scientists. An example is the Northern Research Forum, whose goal is to promote discussion and increased consultations between university students, scientists and the stakeholders in the arctic region. These discussions deal with the important issues, projects and opportunities that concern the inhabitants of the region, both in respect of social and environmental changes and also the globalisation of the economy. The University of Akureyri and the Vilhjálmur Stefánsson Institute have been key players in building up the Northern Research Forum and are now working to prepare the next conference on this subject, which is to be held in Novgorod, Russia, next September. The Circumpolar Agricultural Association should also be mentioned in this regard as their main goal is to support international collaboration aimed at strengthening sustainable agriculture in the arctic.

Collaboration with other international institutions

The Arctic Council has emphasised the necessity of close collaboration with other international associations and institutions and I feel that this is extremely important. The Arctic Council bears the responsibility for co-ordinating activities in the arctic region with other associations and institutions working in the area. The goal should be to strengthen joint efforts and to reduce overlap. Increased relations, for example, with the Council's observers, can support this effort. Collaboration and joint councils with the Northern Forum are increasing and are extremely important. It is also necessary to strengthen ties with the European Union and local associations such as the Council of Baltic States, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Parliamentarians of the Arctic. The Arctic Council has had good working relations with the Nordic Council of Ministers and I expect that this will continue.

Collaboration among the arctic countries is important, large joint projects have been carried out, and other important concerns await resolution. Sustainable development is the vision of the future that is continually being shaped. It is a project that has no end, as we need continually to react to changed conditions and information and to seek new ways to achieve our goal. We Icelanders must shoulder our responsibility and play an active part in the process of sustainable development. Our natural resources, now as before, remain the basis of our economy. We bear the responsibility for utilising these resources sensibly. In this way we can continue to live here and insure our children and grandchildren the same opportunities to utilise these resources.

Importance of collaboration in the arctic region for Iceland

It is vital for us to take an active part in international collaboration and the exchange of opinions on matters concerning sustainable development. The Arctic Council is the forum for us in this respect. I expect that our chairmanship of the Council will lead to increased understanding of arctic region concerns among Icelanders and that we will, ourselves, take account of the factors that unite the inhabitants of the arctic region and the factors that influence our welfare. In this way we can define the projects and opportunities for improvement and undertake projects based on well-grounded observations in the fields of environmental, economic and social concerns.

With effective collaboration the Arctic Council can ensure that joint efforts will be based on understanding and knowledge of those concerns that unite those of us who live in the arctic region, and thus enable us to achieve success. I am optimistic about the future of the Arctic Council and certain that the member nations will meet the new challenges with strength and boldness.

In closing I want to express appreciation for the opportunity to talk here at the University of Akureyri and to thank all of you who have come. It will be my pleasure as well as my duty to answer your questions about the concerns that I have raised here.


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