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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Northern Forum 6th General Assembly - The Icelandic Chairmanship Program

St. Petersburg, Russia, 25 April 2003


Northern Forum 6th General Assembly, the Icelandic Chairmanship Program

Keynote Presentation by Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson
Chair of Senior Arctic Officials



President Grímsson, governors, ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to congratulate Governor Pokka, the Chair of the Northern Forum, on a highly successful 6th General Assembly and to thank her and the organizers for inviting me as Chair of Senior Arctic Officials to contribute to this plenary session. May I also take this opportunity to thank the Executive Director, Mrs. Priscilla Wohl, for the strong support she has given the Icelandic Chair during his first six months in office.

The Arctic Council is, in a manner of speaking, a unicorn among international organizations. Whether looked at in terms of geography, climate, resources or habitation, it certainly has no parallel. This applies even more to our manner of doing things. As we like to say, we are the circumpolar voice of the international community. Yet, we are not an organization proper, but a forum of eight countries, five indigenous peoples} organizations and some twenty-three observers, which, taken together, constitute a fairly effective, pragmatic and flexible means of dealing with the issues of the world's northernmost regions. As such, the Arctic Council appears to be a rare illustration of the old Roman dictum, in pluribus unum.

The inherent flexibility of Arctic Council working arrangements can be both a liability and an asset. To be fully successful, an Arctic Council project typically requires a whole number of actors to coordinate their efforts, rather than placing the whole burden of execution on any one among them. Member states need to work with not only indigenous peoples and outside parties, but regional and sub-regional governments, municipalities, businesses and non-governmental organizations, who, in many instances, may need to coordinate among themselves. This is why an organization like the Northern Forum has a unique contribution to make.

Another characteristic of our form of work is the latitude given to the country volunteering to carry the torch for the duration of the Chairmanship period. Like all freedoms, this one is bounded by certain rules of the game. Most importantly, we all take our cue from the declarations and commitments of Ministers. At the same time, the incoming Chair is expected to propose his own program of action and will normally enjoy considerable space of maneuver in carrying that program out.

After Canada, the United States and Finland, Iceland is the fourth country to take over the Chair of the Arctic Council. All three of our predecessors have, in one way or another, left their mark on the work of the Council and we are pleased to be able to build on their accomplishments. This brings me to the specific subject I have been asked to address, the program of the Icelandic Chair.

The Arctic Council, as everyone here knows, is rooted in cooperation on environmental issues, which has a successful track record, longer than that of the Arctic Council itself. Some of the best work of the Arctic Council has been done in this area, including pollution research that is up to the highest scientific standards. The Icelandis Chair is fully committed to continuing to promote the monitoring, assessment and, as the case may be, the elimination of contaminants in the Arctic. In the recent past, increasing attention has also been given to the need to ensure an adequate financial basis for such projects.

Environmental protection, while a showcase example, cannot and should not be seen as synonymous with the Arctic Council's work. We are a forum devoted to sustainable development, including its social, economic and cultural aspects. To foster greater progress in this area, one of the member countries, Canada, now hosts a secretariat for the Sustainable Development Working Group. In another gesture, highlighting the need to focus on the broader agenda, Ministers agreed last October to develop, under Iceland's lead, a so-called Arctic Human Development Report.

This report, the first extensive overview of human conditions in the Arctic as a whole, will help give sustainable development in the region a human face. What we want to do is to identify all relevant factors, challenges as well as opportunities, of social and economic development and thus provide policy-makers and the people of the region with a valuable and much needed compass to the future.

Work on the report is well under way, as I am sure you will hear from the co-chair of the steering group later in this panel. It certainly remains the goal of the Chair to have a first installment of this ambitious undertaking completed by the time of the Ministerial meeting in Iceland in October 2004.

In the Chairmanship program, we have recognized the special role information technology can be play for the communities of the Arctic region. Long distances, fragmented habitats and the need for effective infrastructure and communication characterize the region as a whole. To empower especially the inhabitants of the more remote communities and improve their quality of life we need to provide them with technologies that are both affordable and capable.

It is against this background that Iceland will host a two-day international conference on Information and Communication Technology in the Arctic in October this year. We propose to discuss critical questions relating to the use of information technology in the North and suggest practical waysof moving forward. We will narrow the focus of the conference to two aspects in particular, telemedicine and distance education, and hope to bring together people of different backgrounds to share ideas and experiences, as well as stories of success.

Research co-operation is another main pillars of our program. My countrymen often pride themselves on the experience they have in utilizing research and technical knowledge for the benefit of sustainable development and for adapting international science to the particular circumstances that prevail in their own country. Biotechnology and the use of renewable energy resources for industry are examples that come to mind.

Knowledge, research and technology should be seen as a means for smaller communities in the Arctic to gain control of their often harsh external conditions. They are tools for using resources wisely. To help coordinate the different strands of research having to do with the Arctic, Iceland will, in April 2004, host the Arctic Science Summit Week, the annual meeting of programs and institutions active in Arctic research.

During our Chairmanship, we will continue to seek closer collaboration with other international organizations, following the exemplary lead of our Finnish predecessors. While most of our projects are based on a lead country initiative, the Council has been able to make its voice heard outside the Arctic region and influence other international bodies.

For example, the Arctic Council was invited, along with other regional bodies, to participate in the preparation of the European Commission's Northern Dimension Action Plan for the years 2004-2006, and submitted an overview of the Council's priorities and activities to the Commission earlier this year.

As a regional body, the role of the Arctic Council was bolstered in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation where the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment project was specifically referred to. The importance of this is considerable, as the project could very well become the first comprehensive, regional contribution to the climate change debate. Other projects relevant to the WSSD process are being carried out by the Council, including the development of a strategic plan for the protection of the Arctic marine environment.

Following this condensed and somewhat selective overview of Arctic Council activities during the Icelandic Chairmanship, let me conclude with a few observations.

First, given the constraints that we as a body must work with, we need to make sure that we do not take on greater tasks than we can cope with. It was once said of young Henry Kissinger, then a doctoral student preparing his dissertation, that after he had bitten off a bigger piece of work than he could chew, he then went on to chew more than he had bitten off! It may have worked for young Henry Kissinger, but for the Arctic Council it almost certainly will not.

Secondly - and this may sound somewhat paradoxical - there can be no denying that the volume of work that the Arctic Council has taken upon itself, has gradually increased year by year.

This, of course, cannot but have implications for the Arctic Council in the long run, especially the member states interested in taking on the responsibility of chairing this body. We must do a better job of prioritizing issues and try as best we can to separate the wheat from the chaff. We may want also to keep our working methods under constant review. This need not require fundamental changes in the way we do common things. As someone once put it, before trying uncommon things, let us first try to do the common things uncommonly well.

I am confident that with the active involvement of the Northern Forum and the other important stakeholders we will eventually meet that challenge.

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