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Arctic Council

Editor’s Briefing | Power to the council

The US chairmanship may see emergence of a more robust Arctic Council
Speak softly, but put that gavel on steroids (Photo: Arctic Council)

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It was the best headline of the entire three-day Arctic Circle conference.

The headline, “We will put the Arctic Council on steroids”, belonged to an article by High North News, a Norway-based website, and was based on comments made by Admiral Robert Papp, the US special representative to the Arctic.

While the thrust of the article was on what the US will do when it takes over responsibility for the organisation in April, it also had the effect of drawing the Arctic Council squarely into the limelight. The position was somewhat unusual for a group that tends to work in relative anonymity.

Papp’s comment came in response to a question by Jim Bell, the editor of Nunavut’s Nunatsiaq News, about where the US planned to take chairmanship of the Tromsø, Norway-based organisation that describes itself as “the leading international forum for promoting co-operation, co-ordination and interaction among the Arctic states, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues … .”

SEE VIDEO: Passing the Arctic Council torch (at end of article)

Though reform of the council has not been included as one of America’s three focus areas for its chairmanship, Papp pointed out that the council, founded in 1996, had “matured” to the point where it was ready to become a “more vibrant” player in Arctic affairs.

While Papp cited the need for greater consistency as the Arctic Council chairmanships passed from one country to the next (for example, the US will continue Canada’s current focus on economic development, but will also pursue two other goals) the comments come at a time when the council is facing increasing challenges to its claim to being the leading body in the region.

The council is primarily a forum for Arctic states and indigenous groups, and is divided into six working groups involved with topics such as monitoring, assessing and preventing pollution, climate change, biodiversity conservation, protection of the marine environment, emergency prevention, preparedness and response and improving the living conditions of Arctic residents.

At a time of persistent questions about military tensions in the region, it is worth noting that the Ottawa Declaration, the organisation's founding document, explcitly excludes such issues from the scope of its work.


In recognition of the need to work with non-Arctic entities, the council also admits states, international organisations and NGOs from outside the region. The participation of these ‘observers’ is limited, however, and Papp discussed giving them the opportunity for them to be more involved – or possibly even requiring it. But it will remain a members’ club, and as such it will have a hard time matching the free-wheeling atmosphere of the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic Circle’s willingness to accept all comers to the Arctic table irked some council members ahead of last year’s inaugural conference, but sources said the two had come to terms about their differing roles, and now view each other as supplements. The Arctic Circle, one diplomat said, has emerged as the place for policymakers, academics and businesspeople (and journalists, the sceptical will add) to see be seen, regardles of their country of origin. The Arctic Council, on the other hand, remains the forum for decision-making by Arctic states.

In addition to the formality of membership (the Arctic Council is made up of the eight states with territory inside the Arctic Circle, six organisations representing indigenous groups living in the region, and no less than 32 observers), the council also carries the gravity of being run by senior civil servants.

SEE RELATED: Environmentalist, facilitator ... bow-tie

While countries are officially represented on the council by a cabinet-level official (typically a foreign minister) it is the duty of the SAO (senior Arctic official, to the uninitiated) to monitor and approve council activities. Their work, in turn, is directed by the chair of the SAOs, who is appointed by the Arctic state holding the chairmanship.

This position is currently held by Canada’s Vincent Rigby. Contrary to popular misconception, he will not be succeeded by Papp. As special adivsor, he is the Arctic eyes, ears and mouthpiece for John Kerry, the US secretary of state. Julia Gourley, is the current US SAO. A decision on who will become the US SAO chair will be made soon, Papp said.



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