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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Future Directions of the Arctic Council

GRID Arendal
Arctic Science and Policy Workshop
Arendal, Norway, 16 September 2003


Future Directions of the Arctic Council

Statement by H.E. Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson
Chairman of Senior Arctic Officials


Thank you for inviting me, in my capacity as Chairman of the Senior Arctic Officials, to participate in this Arctic Science and Policy Workshop.

My first observation should be that the Arctic Council has enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the Global Resource Information Database (GRID) at Arendal. Your work in educating people throughout Northern areas on environmental issues is recognized and appreciated among all member states of the Arctic Council. We are also honoured to have UNEP represented through GRID Arendal as an observer at meetings of the Council. No doubt, this is one of the reasons why Arctic concerns reverberate with such positive effect in Nairobi.

UNEP is and will remain a key partner for the Arctic Council. One reason is obviously the environmental focus of the Arctic Council and the need to ensure optimum complementarity and synergy between global environmental efforts and regional. Above and beyond that, the attention UNEP has given to Arctic issues is a superb example of how Arctic concerns are being mainstreamed into the work of major international organizations. The work done by UNEP Chemicals on mercury and persistent organic pollutants is a case in point, as Arctic member states were among the first to draw attention to the need to combat those contaminants globally.

I was asked to focus on the future and the emerging priorities of the Arctic Council. If you were to examine the practices and working structures of this innovative forum, you might wonder whether the founders had given much thought to the future. You would find, for example, that the elements of permanence that characterize most international organizations, like a secretariat, are absent. Also, there are no committees. Instead, the Arctic Council makes do with "working groups", suggesting temporary arrangements for limited purposes. Oddly, this may nevertheless be one of its most telling features. With only slight exaggeration, you might even describe the Arctic Council as a practical, project-driven forum with minimun investment in institutional self-perpetuation and maximum interest in obtaining concrete results.

What kind of results? you might ask. Before I get to that, I should point out out that the Arctic Council is not practical to a point of forswearing all sense of place in the larger scheme of things. While the working groups are in many ways the primus motor of the Arctic Council, it is also necessary to have a general sense of direction or a guiding principle to make sense of it all. No praxis can be relevant or successful in the long run, if not guided by such a principle, even if that principle is implicit only or visible after the fact.

The principle then, baldly stated, is sustainable development. The Arctic Council is a forum for sustainable development, addressing all of its main pillars, the environmental, social and economic. Let me say a few words about how those three pillars are connected.

The inspiration of the work of Arctic Council, as everyone here knows, has been environmental protection, based on the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) from1991. Our results here showcase some of the best work carried out by the Arctic Council. The reports prepared by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) working group, dealing with contaminants like mercury and persistent organic pollutiants, are one example. The report of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group, a science-based overview of Arctic biodiversity and conservation issues, is another. Increasingly, we are now also devoting more attention to ways and means of eliminating pollution. The Arctic Council Action Plan (ACAP) for the Protection of the Environment, in particular, has developed specific action programmes to phase-out, on the basis of AMAP}s findings, harmful substances like PCB}s and dioxins, to mention only a couple of examples.

The one environmental project commanding the greatest attention at this moment is probably the so-called Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). This will be the first comprehensive regionally-based study of climate change to be published since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. A complex and disputed subject, climate change will in all likelihood affect every aspect of life in the Arctic in the years and decades to come. Understandably therefore, the results of the assessment, due in the autumn of 2004, are eagerly awaited by many people.

There can be little doubt that environmental issues, in some ways the most successful area of our work, will remain at the core of the Arctic Council for quite some time. The Arctic environment is also likely to attract growing attention by the world at large, if only because it is increasingly being seen as a bellwether for other regions, in terms of both long-range transboundary pollution and climate change.

But we must never forget that the Arctic is not just environment. It is home to people, almost four million of them, including more than thirty
different indigenous peoples. As it happens, many of the processes documented in the Arctic Council}s environmental reports have begun to work their effects through the lives and livelihoods of the the people of the region.

This is not a cause for alarm. The Arctic remains a clean environment, as AMAP}s findings make clear. At the same time, some pollutants give reason for concern in certain ecosystems and for some human populations in the Arctic. In addition, climate change is beginning to have detrimental impact on local communities, economies, resource utilization, infrastructure and human health. Finally, pressures are building in some areas of the Arctic as a result of economic activities, including shipping, dumping and exploitation of oil and gas, aspects of which have been studied by our working group on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR).

All of those pose serious challenges to the inhabitants of the Arctic region. But it would be wrong to speak of the future of the Arctic in such bleak terms only. Inhabited by humans for thousands of years, the Arctic boasts many thriving communities and cultural traditions of astonishing diversity. Many of them have demonstrated exceptional resourcefulness in adapting to the sometimes harsh circumstances of life in the Arctic. The resources of the region, including not only oil and gas, but mines, forests, freshwater, fisheries and wildlife, are among the richest in the world. In addition, not all of the changes affecting the region will necessarily be negative. Global warming, for example, may also bring in its wake new economic opportunities through the opening of new Arctic sea routes.

My point is that whether we look upon the Arctic in terms of peril and risk or promise and opportunity, there can be little doubt that the time has come to devote more effort to the social, economic and cultural life of the region. We need to address both sides of the equation, society and nature, to arrive at a balanced notion of sustainable development.

Responding to this need, Ministers decided at Inari last year to launch, under Iceland}s lead, the Arcitc 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 work of the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). Ministers also approved the two other main planks of the Icelandic Chairmanship programme, focusing on the use of information and communications technology in the Arctic and co-ordination of Arctic research. Taken together, the three elements should not detract from the Arctic Council}s work on the environment. On the contrary, they should reinforce that work and give greater depth to sustainable development in the Arctic region.

Let me now turn briefly to some of the emerging priorities in the Arctic Council working groups.

The Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) has been mandated to develop an action plan on sustainable development, based on, among other things, the Sustainable Development Framework Document, adopted in Barrow in 2000. The areas I just mentioned under the umbrella of the Icelandic Chairmanship programme may also give rise to new assignments for this working group. For example, on the basis of the AHDR, we may wish to see concrete policies and working programmes developed. Similarly, the Information and Telecommunications conference due to take place in Iceland a month from now, is likely to result in action proposals that would fall within the competence of the SDWG.

As regards environmental activities, observation and analysis remain in the forefront, although more effort may also be needed to eliminate pollution. New chemicals are making their way into the Arctic food chain, such as brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Their use has increased drastically over the past decades. In response, ACAP has recently begun to consider ways of limiting the use of BFRs. The issue will require attention by all the member states, whereas many of the current ACAP projects have primarily been focused in one country.

As the Arctic is primarily a marine area, the Council attaches considerable importance to ocean issues. Here, a more coordinated approach has been recently called for. To meet that demand, the Council has agreed to develop a strategic plan under the leadership of the Protection of the Marine Environment Working Group (PAME). The plan should be finalized in the autumn of next year. As a first step, a workshop on the development of the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan will be held in Iceland next month to discuss, among other things, possible circumpolar responses to Arctic ocean issues. The plan will to a large extent be based on the ecosystem approach and should contribute to the implementation of targets set by the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg last year. I should add, in this connection, that PAME is an independent partner of the UNEP Regional Seas Programme.

Turning to AMAP and CAFF, one of the main tasks that will occupy those working groups next year will be to produce, in cooperation with the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), the ACIA scientific assessment and policy reports, to be presented to Ministers in 2004. Subsequently, we may want to take a closer look at how the Arctic Council wants to follow up on the work of the ACIA.

The tasks we have taken upon ourselves are therefore numerous and complex. Attempting to outline them, I hope to have given you at least the Chairmanship}s perspective on the near and median future of the Arctic Council. But I am afraid that any such perspective would remain incomplete, if it failed to acknowledge the support other actors have extended to us, including, not least, UNEP, through its polar programme.

Earlier on, I described the Arctic Council as a forum with minimum institutional superstructure and maximum interest in concrete results. In case it escaped your notice, let me point out that this, of course, is a paradox of sorts. It is a paradox we have nevertheless been able to live with and even turn into an asset, not least because organizations like UNEP have been prepared to feature Arctic concerns, including mercury, in their global programme. This has been vital, if only because many of those concerns have global roots.

Charles de Gaulle once commented cynically about a certain country that it had a great future and always would! With partners like UNEP and GRID Arendal, the Arctic Council will not rest content with a great future; we may actually look forward to getting things done.

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