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The second annual Arctic Circle conference has concluded in Reykjavík, and the event is now well placed to stand amongst the most visible of the growing number of polar policy events which are supplementing the work of the Arctic Council. The event was successful in further promoting dialogue between members of government, academia and the scientific community on pressing issues confronting the Arctic. These issues include climate change, maritime security, governance, scientific cooperation, indigenous affairs, business and economic development, energy and health matters. However, the conference was also noteworthy due to the large number of delegates and presentations representing non-Arctic states and interests. The plenary sessions included many panels hosted by actors outside of the Far North, including France, Italy, Japan, the US state of Maine, and most notably the United Kingdom, which hosted a session featuring presentations by members of the British parliament and a glossy brochure highlighting the country’s growing Arctic expertise. After that particular session, there was much discussion about other states preparing similar governmental panels for the Arctic Circle meetings next year.
The presence at the event of so many interests outside of the Arctic proper is a strong indication of the many polar issues which have become not only regional but also international. The Arctic Circle conference concluded with many questions addressed about the future of the region, such as the political, economic and environmental effects of changing climate conditions, as well as future business and energy-related opportunities and the participation of indigenous persons in the ‘opening up’ of the Arctic.
There were however, two larger questions which emerged from the conference about the ‘globalisation’ of the Far North that defied easy answers. The first involved the predictable elephant in the room, namely the sensitive question of whether the ongoing conflicts in eastern Ukraine would inevitably drive a wedge between Russia and Western governments within Arctic institutions. The second, less-defined, questioned the political balance between the Council’s eight member states and the growing list of that body’s observers. This year’s Arctic Circle gave many of the newer observer states in the Council the opportunity to further describe their polar policies and their special relationships with the Arctic. Publications in China in the recent past have described the country as a ‘near-Arctic state’, Great Britain has touted itself as the Arctic’s ‘nearest neighbour’, and the 2013 Arctic white paper released by the government of Germany noted that the country ‘is widely viewed as a partner’ among Arctic nations.
The current register of Arctic Council observers, (China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom), had previously established scientific, political and economic credentials in the Arctic as a prerequisite to attaining membership status. Yet there are signs that a further waiting list of potential Council observers may soon be formed in the months before the Ninth Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Iqaluit in May of next year. At the head of the line is the European Union, which missed out on observer status last year largely due to a diplomatic dispute with Canada over a 2009 EU ban on imported seal products, which Ottawa viewed as detrimental to Canadian indigenous communities. However, an agreement was reached in October this year which would see the resumption of such exports to Europe, and so the 28-member EU is likely to become a Council observer in the short term. However, among the other potential observer applications discussed at the Arctic Circle were those of Indonesia, Mexico, Mongolia and the United Arab Emirates, with other requests certainly possible. This scenario again raises the difficult question of exactly who is an Arctic stakeholder, and who gets to make that determination?
According to the Council’s rules of procedure regarding observers, decided after much debate at the organisation’s Ministerial Meeting at Kiruna in 2013, a non-Arctic state, (or international governmental or non-governmental organisation), is granted observer status upon consent of the member states, and is also based on whether a given candidate can make positive contributions to the Council itself and recognises the sovereignty of the Arctic states, the Law of the Sea, and the status of regional indigenous peoples. Observers must also have ‘demonstrated their Arctic interests and expertise’. Despite frequent media use of the term ‘permanent observer’, in reality an observer can in practice be suspended if it acts against the original declaration of the Arctic Council or the rules of the body. In addition, according to the rules, observers are to make ‘relevant contributions’ through participation in the Council’s working groups. Above all, the primary role of the observers is of course to observe, but also participate in working groups and produce statements and documents. The right to vote and the bulk of the decision-making capabilities, however, remain squarely with the ‘Arctic Eight’ member states.
However, with twelve observer countries, some of which representing a high level of political and economic power outside of the Arctic, and more seeking to gain admission, can the Arctic Council’s current configuration adjust to the arrival and engagement of so many observers? Will there be future allowances made for observers to have different levels of rights and obligations? Council members, especially Canada and Russia, have been wary of the possibility of some form of expanded Arctic organisation which would allow non-Arctic states a greater degree of decision-making rights. Nonetheless, should the Arctic continue to grow as an international concern and should the region begin to develop greater economic (and by association strategic) importance in the future due to, for example mining, fossil fuel drilling, increased use of sea routes and local maritime commerce, and ongoing effects of climate change, many states outside of the Arctic may view themselves as having a degree of stakeholder status which would require recognition. The Arctic Circle event may have provided a preview of these difficult questions surrounding future Arctic governance. The issue of how best to balance the requirements of Arctic nations and peoples and the growing amount of scrutiny from actors further south may become more pressing sooner rather than later.