21: The Arctic Council

The UN, the EU, the League of Nations and countless more abbreviations and grand names belong to the international collaborative bodies that have, and occasionally still do, exist. They have a variety of tasks, but one of their main jobs is to do these things beyond the scope of just one country. Many of the social, economic and climatic issues that affect the Arctic are also beyond the scope of just one country to deal with, so it makes sense then that the Arctic has an international collaboration of its own. This is known as the Arctic Council. There are many other groups that deal with particular issues in the Arctic and do so across national borders, but the Arctic Council is one of the highest level ones, so this week we’re going to take a look at what it is and who is involved, including why places like India and South Korea have a stake in the “ARCTIC” Council. Enjoy!

The groups involved in the Arctic Council (Picture: The Arctic Council)

What do they do?

The Arctic Council formed in 1996 with the aim “to promote cooperation and interaction among Arctic States with the involvement of Arctic Indigenous communities”. It is made up of the 8 Arctic States (U.S.A, Canada, The Kingdom of Denmark due to Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia), and 6 ‘permanent participants’ which are representatives of Indigenous groups (these being the Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council).

The Arctic Council is chaired and hosted by a different country every 2 years, and that country will set the topics that the Council will focus on within those 2 years. So for example from 2017-2019 Finland was the Chair and they worked mainly on cooperation through education, meteorological work, and environmental protection through developing environmental impact assessments. Iceland has just taken over in 2019 and their focus is on ‘together towards a sustainable Arctic’ so we shall see what that includes in the next couple of years.

All these sound like nice concepts, but what has the Arctic Council actually done? Well, one part is supporting research through their various research groups which can influence the decision making of governments and other bodies. They have also helped to create a few bits of actual policy such as the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement created in 2011, which basically puts aside differences in territorial claims and coordinates which countries respond to emergencies in the waters of the Arctic to ensure people are kept safe. Right now they are also working on a project to promote gender equality in the Arctic in governance and leadership.

The Search and Rescue zones of the Arctic states agreed on in the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement.
(Picture: Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)


Where does South Korea come into all this? Well, the Arctic Council also has what are known as observer states. They are countries that are not in the Arctic but are interested in the decisions being made about it, so want to come along to meetings to see what is happening. They can present information at meetings, submit documents and generally provide opinions, but cannot vote. Current observer states, which have had to officially apply for this role, are Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the UK, France, Spain, China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Switzerland. The EU applied to be an observer state, but has been rejected partially due to their stance on Indigenous seal hunting in Canada which has been viewed as disrespectful to the traditional way of life of the Inuit there, respect of Indigenous cultures being an important part of the Arctic Council’s work. Turkey’s application is pending.

In fact, the EU has applied several times to be an observer of the Arctic Council, and from the list of countries which have been accepted, being an observer is clearly a much wanted position. Why? Well, the Arctic has a large potential for resources such as oil and metals, as well as transport routes such as from China over the top of Russia and west to Scandinavia (see plog 10: The Arctic Corridor for more info on this transport route). From this, as well as larger general bits of northern politics, having a seat at the table to hear what’s happening, as well as getting to give your country’s opinion (even if you can’t vote), can be an influential and useful situation to be in.

Also for the record, the 6 indigenous groups can bring information to meetings, propose things for the agenda and propose projects, giving them as minorities far more of a voice than in most circles, but they also cannot vote. Only the 8 countries that make up the Arctic Council can.

Members of the Arctic Council meet in Iqaluit in 2015. (Picture: U.S. Department of State)

They’ve got the power?

So a Council that can control the resources, waters, Indigenous people and countries of the Arctic right? Should be ready for world domination any day now! Well… no.

The thing about the Arctic Council is that it is indeed influential, it has created some policies like the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, and has led to all kinds of research being done. Some might say has even contributed to political stability in the Arctic through it’s regular collaboration between nations that may be somewhat hostile to one another in other arenas. However, the Arctic Council doesn’t as such have any power… it also doesn’t have much money, and that is problematic. Their work and research can come up with lots of advice and recommendations, but the actual nations of the Arctic can choose to ignore this if they want. The Council also relies on Arctic states for its funding, so if a state wanted, they could just not fund certain research projects they don’t like. A little cynical, and probably doesn’t happen that often (I’m not privy to the inner working of the Arctic Council) but it’s good to be aware of.

Picture: The Arctic Council

Debate flies around about the usefulness, power and role of the Arctic Council, but even if it’s not super powerful or rich, it definitely has created some important policies, triggered some good research, and has played an notable role in recognising the needs of indigenous peoples. Arguably it may also be contributing to peace between the Arctic states, so not a bad organisation all round!

For more info:

The Arctic Council website: https://www.arctic-council.org/index.php/en/

A very advertisey intro to the Arctic Council: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryeAbw_hj5E

Music: kongano.com

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