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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Arctic Council briefing to the Presidium of the Nordic Council, 2 February 2004

ARCTIC COUNCIL BRIEFING TO THE PRESIDIUM OF THE NORDIC COUNCIL, 2 FEBRUARY 2004


At the outset, I would like to convey to you the greetings of the Chairman of the Arctic Council, Foreign Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson, and welcome you to Reykjavík, the only capital in the Arctic region.

I have been asked to provide you a snapshot of Arctic Council activities. Before doing so, let me describe certain characteristics of the Arctic Council as an organization. In so doing, I will assume that you know less about this forum than you almost certainly do.


The distinguishing feature of the Arctic Council is its geographic scope. We are a circumpolar forum, the only one involving both governments and indigenous peoples´ organizations. Different actors may be concerned with “slices” of this geographic circle. The Barents Euro-Arctic Council covers one part and Canada, through its Northern policy, another, to mention two examples. There is also extensive pan-Arctic cooperation at levels other than the government level, for example among Arctic parliamentarians, regional and municipal authorities, or the academic community. The Arctic Council is nonetheless the only network that brings together most of those actors horizontally or vertically, through membership or observership.

Another characteristic of the Arctic Council is the absence of permanent structures. It is the unicorn among international organizations. It has no permanent secretariat or budget, unlike the Nordic Council, for example. Most projects are undertaken on a “lead country” or voluntary basis. During its two year term of Chairmanship, for instance, Iceland assumes the operational cost of a secretariat and all common meetings of the Arctic Council. It is an odd system, but it is also a system that works. One advantages of such a system is, of course, that over a period of sixteen years, all the member states get a chance to put their own stamp on the work of the Arctic Council.


We are also a young organization. The Arctic Council was built on the Rovaniemi-process in 1996, which explains why its main focus at the outset was environmental protection. This remains a pivotal part of the work of the Arctic Council. Inhabitants of the North live in a sensitive, some might even say vulnerable, natural environment. Therefore, a great deal of effort has been devoted to conserving its flora and fauna. We are also engaged in monitoring and assessing pollution in the Arctic - and, on the basis of such assessments, taking action to eliminate the identified sources of pollution, especially in Russia.

This is where the Arctic Council has made its mark. Its environmental reports showcase some of the best scientific work that has been done in the Arctic. But they are far from being of Arctic interest exclusively. As we study the Arctic, we are appreciating more and more the complex interlinakges that exist between the Arctic and the rest of the world from the point of view of biology and ecology. To a certain extent, the Arctic has always been globalized - long before the age of globalization. This is why it is hard to separate the Arctic environment agenda from the global environment agenda.

I will try to be a bit more concrete: The Arctic remains, comparatively speaking, a clean environment. But pollution studies carried out by the Arctic Council suggest certain trends that give cause for concern in some Arctic areas. Moreover, by studying the effects of phenomena like long-range transboundary pollution in the Arctic region we are able to predict the consequences such pollution may have elsewhere in the world. How, for instance, is the increased accumulation of a harmful substance like mercury in the foodweb going to affect human health? The Arctic may hold the key to answering such questions.


The question of health, reminds us - proud as we are of our environmental record - that it would be quite wrong to portray the Arctic Council as a forum concerned only with the environment. Some four million people call the Arctic their home. Human activity obviously impacts the environment. But changes in the environment also affect people and their conditions of life. This perspective of interaction between society and environment is what is commonly referred to - in the jargon of the trade - as sustainable development. To the extent that the Arctic Council now deals with social and economic issues, in addition to the environment, it is transforming itself into a forum devoted to sustainable development.

As it happens, Iceland´s chairmanship of the Arctic Council overlaps with this evolutionary phase in the life of the Council. As we see it, our assignment is to maintain the momentum of our work on the environment, while at the same time raising the profile of the social, economic and the cultural dimensions of life in the Arctic region. To fulfill that assignment, we have chosen to concentrate, in full consultation and cooperation with our partners in the Arctic Council, on three main areas. We are:

- undertaking the first extensive study of living conditions in the entire Arctic region, the so-called Arctic Human Development Report, to be published later this year,

- examining how to improve the access of inhabitants in the North to information and telecommunications technologies, based on the results of an international conference hosted by Iceland last October; and

- seeking to strengthen cooperation on Arctic research, by bringing together a large part of the Arctic science community for an Arctic Science Summit Week this spring and organizing the first meeting of Arctic education ministers early in the summer.

Even so, there can be little doubt that environment issues will continue to demand our attention for the nine months remaining of the Icelandic chairmanship period. The Arctic Council is, for example, undertaking an integrated Arctic Marine Strategic Plan to be completed by the fall. But the headline-grabber, no doubt, will be the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, also to be completed in time for the November Ministerial. This will be the first comprehensive, regionally-based study of climate change to be published since the United Nations Convention on Climate change in 1992. With temperatures rising at twice the global average in the Arctic, climate change will forseeably put its mark on every aspect of life in the Arctic in the coming decades.

Here we have another reason why the world at large should be taking an active interest in the Arctic. Studying climate change in the Arctic we are gauging what the future will hold for the rest of the globe. How, for instance will increases in glacial melt, precipitation and river run-off affect sea levels and the deep-ocean conveyor-belt that distributes the earth´s heat? Again, we are looking to the Arctic for clues.

The interaction between the regional and the global, whether on account of pollution, climate change or something else, is one reason why the Arctic Council has to engage major international actors, including the United Nations, its specialized agencies and the European Union. We also need cooperate - and are in fact cooperating - with regional bodies, including the Nordic Council of Ministers.

As the Arctic Council has come of age, the Arctic region has for the first time acquired a distinct voice in the international community. The Nordic countries have been an important part of the effort to give the Arctic that voice and for that reason, not least, I am honoured and grateful for having been given the opportunity to address the Presidium of the Nordic Council here today.




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