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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Arctic co-operation 12 years on: How successful?

Arctic co-operation 12 years on: How successful?
Wilton Park Conference, 17 -21 March 2003

Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson, Chairman of Senior Arctic Officials

I want to thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me as Chair of Senior Arctic Officials to come to Wilton Park and to take part in this discussion on how far we have come in Arctic co-operation. You may have invited me as Chair, but I would surely let you down if I spoke as one. So don}t expect me to.

The conference title is framed in a historical perspective. One might wonder whether the passing of judgment on Arctic co-operation only twelve years on might not rush things a bit, considering that Deng Xiaoping thought it premature to evaluate the French revolution two hundred years later. But then again our aims were probably more modest; to bring about incremental improvements in the lives of residents in the region, rather than overturning the whole order of human society in one fell swoop.

If memory serves me right, our hosts had originally proposed to discuss the question of Arctic co-operation, success or failure? I am certainly relieved that failure is no longer an option for us. At the same time, the sense that those of us working on Arctic cooperation have constantly to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat is probably never distant from us. I say so because any attempt to evaluate the success of Arctic co-operation must squarely face up to the particular challenges that characterize the circumpolar region.

They are, indeed, daunting challenges at times. The Arctic sprawls over one sixth of the Earth}s landmass, some thirty five million square kilometers, twenty four time zones, has a population of less than four million and dozens of native languages. It is cold and dark for long periods of the year. People living there have as yet a limited sense of solidarity or common destiny. Add to this the prejudices that many people in other parts of the world frequently harbour about the region. I don}t say this to be gloomy or bleak. But let us be clear that the problems of the Arctic region are not the problems of, say, the European Economic Area.

It is against this background, not least, that we must evaluate the first instrument of choice for dealing with the challenges of the circumpolar region; the Arctic Council. There are a number of different ways of assessing the "success" of any multilateral organization. Those who have a hand in running such organizations may not always be the most objective judges. For that they usually keep their noses too close to the grindstone. But overall, it is probably true that the success of bodies like the Arctic Council is best measured according to whether they have obtained the goals they have set out to achieve.

Before moving on, I would like to make one proviso. The Arctic Council is not a multilateral organization, properly speaking. We have no permanent secretariat, no fixed domicile, no set logo, no regular budget. That is a long list of negatives, suggesting, perhaps, that we are "all hat and no cattle". That would certainly be a mistaken impression, but I will hold off explaining why this is so. For the time being, let us assume that by comparison with more conventional bodies, the Nordic Council of Ministers for example, the Arctic Council is more like an amateur football club in relation to an all professional one. This need not mean that the former is at a disadvantage. Representing a country of all amateur football players, I can assure that professional teams, including English teams, have often been given a good run for their money by amateurs.

What are those goals main goals that the Arctic Council has set itself? One way of answering that question would be to enlist all the tasks we are embarked upon. Shortly after Iceland took over the Chairmanship last October, we compiled such a checklist, based on agreed documents, of things "to do". As it turned out, the list comprised thirteen categories, of one to ten commitments each.

This is what, in the philosophy of science, is sometimes called the inductive approach. The problem with such an approach is that it fails to convey a unifying theme or signal. The wide variety of subjects covered by the Arctic Council may in fact be one of the reasons why it has proven so difficult to communicate what our work is all about.

There is another, short-hand approach to describing what the Arctic Council does. As we sometimes like to put it, the Arctic Council is a forum for sustainable development. From this the expert will infer any number of things, but ask John Doe and he will more than likely not have a clue about what this means. This could be another reason why we are sometimes weak on message; we have a tendency to wrap our thoughts in language that is intelligible only to the specialist, the policy-maker and academic.

So how, in addressing our performance, should we find our way between the Charybdis of mundane detail and the Scylla of vapid generalities? If I had the answer to that, I probably would not be in government service. Nevertheless, let me try to find the golden median.

The simplest and most easily identifiable proposition one can make regarding the Arctic Council is that it is a forum devoted to the environment. This has two aspects at least; protection and use.

The protection of the environment is a showcase example of the Arctic Council}s work. Some of the best studies, up to the highest scientific standards, have focussed on monitoring and assessing pollution in the Arctic. The reports prepared by AMAP are one example, dealing with contaminants like mercury and persistent organic pollutants. Another is the CAFF report on Arctic Flaura and Fauna, providing a science-based overview of Arctic biodiversity and conservation issues. In the area of prevention, one could mention work by the EPPR on a circumpolar map of resources at risk from oil spills.

The one environmental project commanding the greatest attention these days is probably the Arctic climate impact assessment. In a very real sense, this will be an ice breaker for the Arctic Council, because it will bring home to people far and wide the relevance of developments in the Arctic region to their own lives. It will also show that many of the problems of the Arctic have global rather than local origins.

Although observation and analysis remain in the forefront of Arctic Council environment activities, we are also devoting more efforts to ways and means of eliminating pollution. The ACAP, in particular, has developed specific action programmes to phase out, on the basis of AMAP}s findings, pollutants like PCBs and dioxins.

There can be little doubt that the environmental protection part has been a highly successful aspect of Arctic Council activities, providing a bridge between scientists and decision-makers and focussing greater attention and, in some cases, also resources to problems of the Arctic environment.

By comparison, the use aspect has been somewhat lagging. There have been projects on sustainable use of Arctic natural resources, on reindeer husbandry or timberline forests. There have been seminars on issues like sustainable energy systems in the Arctic, to mention one example. But overall we are probably not giving the attention we should to issues of this kind.

There are reasons for this omission, of course. No provision was made for including resource utilization as such at the time we set up the Arctic Council. The subject is closely intertwined with the social and economic fabric of the member countries and we are moving outside the preserve of science proper and into the domain of politics. Another contributing reason, no doubt, is that influential and resourceful actors, including NGOs, have in some cases decided that the people living closest to the resource and depending on it for their livelihood should not be left in sole judgement over how to utilize that resource. In some cases, they are even prepared to ignore the science and hold forth for purely ideological or political reasons.

This brings me to another key issue on the Arctic Council}s agenda. We all care for the environment. What counts, in the end, is people and the difference we can make in their lives. Obviously, the studies we are undertaking of issues like mercury and climate change have a great deal to do with conditions of people}s lives. But what we need, perhaps, is a more concentrated effort to assist or to empower people, both indigenous and non-indigenous, to meet the specific demands of the Arctic environment, to cope with and adapt to it. This is where the pedal meets the metal; it is is where our success will ultimately be added up.

So let us pose the question of what has been accomplished by the Arctic Council in this area? Mindful of the kind of organization we are and the specific features of the circumpolar region, I would answer: a great deal, but not enough. I already mentioned one aspect where we still need to come together on the basic principles; sustainable use. But we are also beginning to treat social and economic issues of the region in a systematic way as we never did before. Examples include the ongoing survey of living conditions in the Arctic (SLICA) and the recently launched Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), both of which will provide our governments with valuable policy guidance. We are looking at ways of identifying and overcoming barriers to extending modern information technology to the North and are hosting a conference on the subject this fall. To better coordinate our social and economic endeavours Canada is setting up a secretariat for our working group on sustainable development. Those are only some examples, but taken as a whole, they bear witness to a deliberate effort to bring the human dimension of the Arctic up to par with the environmental dimension.

But what does it all amount to, you may ask, this mumbo-jumbo on studies, reports, conferences and secretariats? What has been done to actually improve peoples lives?

There is a two-fold answer to that question. We are, in fact, "doing" some things; both in our own name and with others. Examples: Under ACAP, the Arctic Council is helping to eliminate harmful substances and contributing to cleaner production activities in industry. Largely thanks to work in the Arctic Council, the UNEP has prioritized elimination of mercury pollution in its action programmes. The Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants, another human health hazard, is also based in part on studies pioneered in the Arctic. We are working with Russia, within our regional action programme, to address urgent pollution problems in the Arctic marine environment stemming from land-based activities, but 80% of the pollution load of the oceans comes from land.

A cynic might still point out that some of my examples prove exactly the opposite of the point I am making and that the Arctic Council really expects others to do much of the spadework. In a way, he would be right. This is the second part of the answer. The Arctic Council as such was not meant to execute or implement all on its own many of the tasks it has taken upon itself. This has always been, in the first instance, a responsibility of the member states. Some activities we would want to see through ourselves. But we have also developed a system that provides for a variety of responses according to the nature and extent of the task to be performed. It is for this reason that the Arctic Council is, in a manner of speaking, a new kind of animal, one that has no precedent in the taxonomy of international organizations.

I likened the Arctic Council earlier to an amateur football club. It is a club that observes certain rules, like any other organization would do. But it is also characterized by a spirit of individual enterprise that you normally would not find in a more "professional" organization. Let me explain:

We have a system of country chairmanship that rotates every two years. The country given temporary custodianship, will be expected to operate within a framework provided by Ministerial declarations and work programmes. But it will normally not be vetted or micromanaged and will therefore have ample space of maneuver for setting its own mark on the work of the Council during the chairmanship period. Over a period of sixteen years, all member states should, theoretically, have an opportunity to do so.

Individual countries typically volunteer to take the lead on specific projects. For example, Canada leads on children and youth and Sweden on the mainstreaming of gender issues.

Secretariats for the various working groups are hosted by different member states who also take turns at chairing the groups. In this way, the Council has a better earth connection in the individual member states.

Indigenous peoples organizations, recognized as permanent participants, allow us to take full account of traditional knowledge. In many instances, their participation also serves to legitimize certain activities within the Arctic Council.

Two dozen observers, including states and organizations, take part, permitting them to contribute and us to benefit from their views.

Lastly, we have an intricate web of interactions with regional authorities, parliamentarians, civil society and scientific experts. In effect, the Arctic Council is widely open to the participation of non-state actors.

A forum like this clearly has many advantages. It is decentralized and democratic, allowing many different points of view to be aired and considered. The kind of cooperation we have established, for example, between indigenous and non-indigenous people might be held up as a model for others. It is also a flexible and pragmatic forum for getting things done, avoiding the kind of "one size fits all" solutions that sometimes become a constraint within more bureaucratic organizations.

Among the most attractive features is accountability. There is no superlayer of international civil servants to set or to manipulate agendas. Instead, decisions are taken and followed up on by sovereign governments, responsible to their own electorate. In this way, we also limit the opportunities for unaccountable and, in some instances, unhelpful pressure groups to unduly influence the way problems and solutions are presented in the Arctic Council.

Of course, it is a form of work that also has limitations. We have heard, during this conference, a number of suggestions as to the kinds of things we might do more effectively. One thing we need to do is to raise the profile of the Arctic Council with competent organizations and influence them to take on board our own concerns in instances where we don}t have the wherewithall to do things all by ourselves. Recently, for example, we have won recognition for the view in the European Commission that Arctic issues should not be seen as a problem apart but should be mainstreamed into all Northern dimension activities of the EU as cross-cutting theme. It is an approach that might be emulated by other organizations as well.

But I am convinced that most of the challenges we have heard about this week are ones that can be addressed within the framework that we now have and without resorting to such drastic measures as setting up a permanent secretariat.

You will not be surprised, then, if I conclude by saying that the Arctic Council has so far been a story of considerable success. It is also work in progress, firstly because of how we are doing things, testing new and unorthodox working methods, and, secondly, because what we are dealing with is a vast, difficult area of the globe that up to now has been little understood by people outside the region.

Looking at it in this perspective, you might even say that we had scored our first goals.


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