On August 23, 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Minister Leona Aglukkaq, responsible for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, would serve as Canada’s chair of the Arctic Council in 2013—2015. Comprised of eight member states and a handful of permanent members, the council is a “high-level intergovernmental forum” for Arctic states and indigenous communities to address the region’s challenges and opportunities. To learn more about the Arctic Council’s purpose and Canada’s chairmanship and future role within the organization, we speak to CIGI Research Fellow and Arctic expert James Manicom.

CIGI: This will be the second time Canada has held the Arctic Council chairmanship (the first time being the inaugural term between 1996 and 1998). What priorities will Canada have this time around? Will Canada build on progress made by Sweden or pursue its own agenda?

James Manicom: Chairs often inherit agenda items from their predecessors and the Canadian government has been pretty tight-lipped as to what its agenda will contain. If any of the Swedes’ initiatives are incomplete — such as corporate social responsibility guidelines for Arctic entrepreneurship or the negotiation of a mechanism for prevention, preparedness and response for oil extraction — Canada will be expected to see them through. However, there is no reason to expect that Canada will produce a legally binding instrument as the Danes did with the Search and Rescue Agreement. Circumstances dictate that Canada will address the progress that has been made concerning the question of new observer states in the Arctic Council. The Nuuk Declaration issued at the end of the Danish chairmanship in February 2011 formally announced that new observers could be admitted pending the establishment of some criteria, such as recognition of the sovereignty of the Arctic Council states and respect of the values and culture of Arctic indigenous peoples. The next step is to deal with the issue of those who may apply for membership — not only states like China and Japan, but also industry interests like the petroleum and mining industries. Efforts to establish a Polar Code at the International Maritime Organization continue, and Canada will play an important role since, in the past, it has often led on issues of navigation and coastal state jurisdiction in Arctic waters. The Swedes did well to establish a permanent secretariat for the Arctic Council, following on the Danish initiative, and some have called for this body to be integrated with, or somehow linked to, the Indigenous People’s Secretariat. There will also be pressure for a mechanism to increase the capacity of the permanent participants. On the domestic side, territorial governments have been lobbying hard for a greater role in the council during Canada’s chairmanship. It is unclear how this will play out — perhaps more Arctic Council activities will be conducted in the Canadian north.

CIGI: Prime Minister Harper’s announcement came during his annual tour of Canada’s North. During this visit, he said in a statement that “the North is an integral part of our heritage and holds tremendous promise for our country’s future.” Does the Arctic Council, as a governance mechanism, contain the necessary instruments to address its members’ competing interests, or just mutual interests in the region?   

Manicom: The Arctic Council is often criticized for lacking structure and a coherent agenda, but it is important to remember that it did not start as a typical regional institution. It began as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and grew to include working groups on a host of environmental issues. At its core, the council is about gathering and generating knowledge and translating it into policy. The council has come a long way in recent years to formalize its structure and sustain a coherent agenda by establishing the permanent secretariat and having informal meetings in off years. The working groups are what actually do the work of the council, and as long as they and their participants receive adequate funding, the council can fulfill its mandate. Of course, others are calling for a broadening of this mandate. One issue that many think should be re-evaluated is that of security. As a condition of its participation, the United States insisted that security issues be left off the agenda. I don’t think the absence of a security component currently harms the council’s work; there are not many traditional security threats in the North as it is too tough an environment for most militaries to operate in. Perhaps as the polar ice cap melts and the ships of the world arrive, the Arctic Council may consider revisiting the security issue.

It is not clear to me that the eight members of the Arctic Council have “competing” interests as it pertains to the Arctic itself. There is general support for preserving the environment, for sustainable resource development and for preserving the culture and lifestyle of the Arctic inhabitants. There are, of course, differences of degree and policy response. For instance, funding to permanent participants or particular working groups is uneven across member states. Parties also differ on the relationship between sustainability and resource development and on how rigorous particular regulatory regimes should be — this is a natural part of inter-state politics. A state that seeks to exploit its Arctic oil and gas is going to have different views on safety standards than one that has no oil and gas reserves to speak of. Most of the conflicts of interest come from pressures outside the Arctic Council, such as the issue of new observer states or the level of political commitment to the council itself.

There is no doubt that a more formalized structure could help facilitate interaction between the Arctic Council and the international regimes germane to the Arctic. Some lament the lack of a formal link between the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization. It could also be argued that the Arctic Council should have some kind of link with the International Seabed Authority in Jamaica, as the area beyond national jurisdiction in the middle of the Arctic Ocean becomes accessible. There is also an argument to be made about the council’s ability to sell itself; some suggest it is in dire need of a communications strategy to brand itself as the lead organization on Arctic issues in a time of growing global attention.

CIGI: The Arctic continues to gain increased attention from non-circumpolar states, including some from Europe and the Asia Pacific. How are members of the Arctic Council reacting to expressions of interest from non-members wanting to join the organization?

Manicom: There was initially a great deal of uncertainty, primarily over concern of what assets these new actors would bring and because the Arctic Council had no mechanism to admit new members. The Nuuk Declaration and the criteria proposed by the senior Arctic officials have dealt with the latter concern. As to the former, there is no doubting the Arctic credentials of some of these states, despite their geographic location. Japan was the third country to open a research station in Svalbard, Norway. China has considerable expertise in Antarctic research, becoming a regular fixture in the Arctic with biennial Arctic voyages since 2008. South Korea is the only country in the world demonstrating any kind of innovation in the construction of ice-strengthened vessels. These states have considerable expertise and resources to bear that could strengthen the work of the Arctic Council.

That said, the intervening period has seen a number of bilateral disputes between these Arctic Council aspirants and the members of the Arctic Council. Ottawa did not react kindly to the European Union’s ban on seal product imports and was outspoken on keeping the European Union out of the Arctic Council in 2009. China has continued to informally sanction Norway because the Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. These incidents have led to speculation that new member states could undermine the work of the Arctic Council if admitted, despite their status as Observers. It would be a shame if the Arctic Council became bogged down by the effects of bilateral squabbling between members on non-Arctic issues.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.