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Arctic Council

Observers have opinions too

The Arctic Council wants to redefine the role its observers play. It has begun by listening to what they themselves have to say
The floor is yours (Photo: Arctic Council Secretariat/Linnea Nordström)

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The Arctic Council has 32 observers. Before it adds any more it has decided to re-evaluate the role that those 12 non-Arctic states, nine inter-governmental organisations and 11 NGOs are asked to play in the work of the council.

The process was announced in April, during the Arctic Council’s biennial summit. It took a step forward last week during the first meeting of its Senior Arctic Officials, diplomats who represent the Arctic states on the council, to be held under the US chairmanship.

Describing it as a first for the organisation, David Balton (pictured, at right), a US diplomat who chairs the Senior Arctic Officials, said half a day of the meeting’s two-day session in Anchorage, which ended Thursday, had been devoted to asking all observers to present their interests to the full council.

“Most seem to want more engagement, greater input,” he said.

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The challenge, Mr Balton noted, is that not all observers have the same concerns. While a number were focused on “policy-related” matters, others expressed concern about climate and environmental issues. Black carbon, a type of air pollution that causes health problems and speeds climate change, was one major concern. Mr Balton also singled out the migration paths of birds as another worry expressed by observers.

Taking up the role of observers comes as the Arctic Council is opening a wider discussion about the direction of the organisation over the next “five to ten years”, Mr Balton said.

One of the goals of doing so is to come up with ways to prevent the council’s work from being disrupted by the alternating chairmanships. Establishing a permanent administration, which took place in 2013, he said, had helped.

Though no decisions about further steps were made in Anchorage, Mr Balton, in explaining the transition from the Canadian to the US chairmanship, hinted at a possible example. He noted that Washington was working to keep the council’s focus “consistent” by continuing the work the Canadians had begun, yet at the same time had introduced new topics that reflected Washington’s priorities.

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Among other issues the council is working on in this respect is how better to involve the six indigenous groups granted ‘permanent participant’ status.

Here, too, observers will be part of the discussion. In the past, indigenous groups have been leery about admitting new observers, fearing it would dilute their influence. However, in recent years, observers have begun to seek to more direct co-operation with permanent participants.

Showing, sometimes, is telling.