Analysis: The Arctic Council’s Kiruna Vision

The Arctic – somebody’s home. (c) Mia Bennett
The Arctic – somebody’s home. (c) Mia Bennett

During the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna, Sweden last Wednesday, the body’s Secretariat released the “Vision for the Arctic” (PDF). The Secretariat is composed of the eight Arctic States together with the six permanent participants, the Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations.  The vision has seven sections, which I analyze below.

The document’s introduction describes how the region has become “an area of unique international cooperation.” Indeed, this is true, as it is one of the few international forums in the world where indigenous people are consulted at such a high and consistent level, although still not as fully equal partners. Unsurprisingly, a study in a 2011 issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property found that the power structures and decision-making processes of multilateral bodies disadvantage indigenous peoples, even when they are not fully excluded.

“A peaceful Arctic”

The first section, “A peaceful Arctic,” says, “We are confident that there is no problem that we cannot solve together through our cooperative relationships on the basis of existing international law and good will.” This essentially restates in vaguer terms the heart of the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, which expressed that the existing international laws under UNCLOS were sufficient to govern the Arctic and that no international treaty was needed. This confidence likely stems from the successful negotiations Arctic countries have completed over the past few years, such as Norway and Russia’s agreement on the delimitation of their maritime boundary in the Barents Sea. The Member States have also signed two important agreements under the auspices of the Arctic Council, the first pertaining to search and rescue and the second to marine oil spill preparedness. Yet other issues, such as disagreements over the status of waterways such as the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage, or the EU’s ban on seal furs, are not as easy to resolve, even though they likely will not result in the involved countries, Arctic or other, resorting to military conflict.

Safeguarding indigenous rights

The second, “The Arctic home,” speaks of the “well-being of all Arctic people” and “our responsibility for safeguarding indigenous peoples’ rights.” Over the years, the Arctic has become more and more of a “homeland” to the Arctic states rather than a frontier. While it used to be the site of conquests, heroic exploits, and manly adventures, now, the region is commonly perceived as forming an integral part of the Arctic states’ identities. A place that used to be exotic and peripheral in national perceptions is rendered more like home in popular discourse. With that comes a growing sense that Arctic residents, too, should enjoy all the creature comforts that their counterparts in the more densely populated south do, whether broadband internet or affordable milk. At the same time, there are two possibilities that could result from the increasing popularization of the concept of the Arctic as home. On the one hand, there is a certain danger here in that as the Arctic is perceived more like “home,” then it is possible that natural resource exploration will be less contested as people forget what an “amazing place,” in the words of President Obama, the Arctic is. Yet on the other hand, as more people around the world recognize that the Arctic actually is a home for about four million people, perhaps we cannot think of it as such a peripheral place where companies and states are free to extract resources and leave behind only abandoned mines and tailings ponds.

What’s more, there is still a question of who is really the head of the Arctic household. Now that Canada is the chair, they will probably be an even louder voice for indigenous peoples. Yet still, the idea of “responsibility” towards indigenous peoples demonstrates that at its heart, the Kiruna Vision is a document written by people in the (relative) south. Supposedly well-intentioned projects in the past in Arctic states designed to “modernize” indigenous peoples also originated from policymakers’ sense of “responsibility” towards them. If indigenous peoples were on a truly equal footing with other decision makers in the Arctic, they would be empowered enough to safeguard their own rights and not have another agency putatively bearing the “responsibility” to do so.

Interestingly, this section also points to the Secretariat’s desire to demonstrate leadership and raise the profile of the Arctic in other regional and global forums. Regionally, that could be the Barents-Euro Arctic Council or Northern Dimension, and internationally, that could be in the International Maritime Organization or United Nations, to name just a few other organizations that discuss Arctic issues.

Economic cooperation

The third, ”A prosperous Arctic,” explains that economic cooperation will be a priority and that sustainable development is key. The document focuses on increasing economic linkages between Arctic states rather than with foreign investors, even as countries like China sit on the sidelines as huge potential sources of cash to places like Greenland. The Arctic Council hopes to help bolster “self-sufficient Arctic communities,” but often times these communities are dependent on large transfer payments from national treasuries or sizable investments from multinational corporations and non-Arctic countries. The Arctic may very well become prosperous, but creating truly “self-sufficient Arctic communities” is probably impossible. The world today is a networked one where goods, ideas, and investments flow from place to place, making most communities, whether New York City or a small village in rural Thailand, dependent on something from somewhere else.

Safe shipping

The fourth, ”A safe Arctic,” notes that maritime safety hinges upon “broad regional and international cooperation.” The use of the word “international” points to a possible integrating of non-Arctic states, like Korea and Singapore, in discussing issues such as search and rescue and safe shipping. This is the only time the word “international” appears in the document, which signifies that while the Arctic states are comfortable with non-Arctic states helping to make the region safer, they might not be so comfortable – at least on the record – with non-Arctic states contributing to the strengthening of an Arctic homeland, for instance.

The environment

The fifth, “A healthy Arctic environment,” makes the usual statements about the Arctic being unique and fragile. Yet it also interestingly states that the Arctic “continues to be affected by events outside of the region, in particular climate change.” While it is true that most of the carbon dioxide emissions linked to the melting of the Arctic ice cap come from outside the region, the growth of northern industries is also a culprit. The Arctic states are working to combat black carbon and short-lived climate forcers, which they mention in the Kiruna Declaration but do not state in this short vision for the Arctic. On another note, it is a positive development that the Secretariat recognizes the global implications of Arctic climate change, something that was not mentioned in either the Ilulissat Declaration, for instance, and is more often highlighted by countries like China and Korea than the Arctic states.

Science and traditional knowledge

The sixth, “Arctic knowledge,” emphasizes the importance of enhancing both scientific efforts and the integration of traditional knowledge. It also demonstrates an aim to deepen knowledge of the Arctic “both inside and outside the region,” pointing to a possible fostering of international collaborations to study the circumpolar north. With the first International Polar Year held in 1882-1883, this is more of a continuation of long ongoing efforts rather than anything new.

A strong organization

The seventh and last section is “A strong Arctic Council.” It restates that the eight signatories of the Ottawa Declaration will retain full control over decision-making in the Arctic Council while still consulting the Arctic Indigenous Peoples Organizations. The section also mentions that the Arctic Council is open to observers who can contribute to the body’s work. It’s rarely mentioned, but several companies and non-profits have applied to be observers, including Greenpeace and the Association of Oil and Gas Producers (the full list is here). All seven non-governmental applications were denied in Kiruna, though I am not sure of the rationale – perhaps because these groups are not perceived as being able to contribute to the Arctic Council’s work.

One important question is whether the Arctic Council will be able to remain as strong as more observers join. Since the decision-making powers and agenda-setting abilities will still essentially lie with the eight member states, its strength as an influential body with ideational power will probably actually increase the more observers there are. Whether more countries line up to become observers during the Canadian chairmanship will be interesting to see, too.

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Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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