As the U.S. nears the halfway point in its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, it used last week’s meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, to think about its future.
“I got the Arctic Council to take a step back from its day-to-day work and think about the longer term,” David Balton, the official from the U.S. State Department and chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, said at a press briefing on Friday.
“One of the features of the Arctic Council is the two-year rotating chairmanships. The downside is that it tends to introduce a two-year mindset when a lot of problems last longer than that,” he said.
The group looked at climate change and what the Arctic Council could do differently in the wake of the climate change agreement reached in Paris in December. The Arctic Council also discussed progress on its efforts to prevent oil pollution in Arctic waters and development of a pan-Arctic network of Marine Protected Areas, and discussed the development of a Circumpolar Local Environmental Observer (CLEO) network. It will also continue to press on reducing black carbon and methane emissions in the Arctic.
The challenge of funding was also raised. The budget for the Arctic Council and the projects is somewhat ad hoc, said Balton. If the Arctic Council is going to expand and evolve, the funding “may be insufficient,” said Balton. He added that establishing a long-term strategic plan for Arctic Council would benefit the group and provide a better sense of its priorities.
Observers in Waiting
The Arctic Council has 32 observers representing governments, non-governmental organizations and regional groups. Another 16 applicants are seeking observer status, some from non-Arctic states and the rest from organizations. Greece, Turkey and Switzerland are reported to have submitted applications, along with Greenpeace, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists and the Association of Oil and Gas Producers, among others.
At a meeting in Anchorage in October, Balton affirmed that the Arctic Council would re-evaluate the role of the observers before it added more. If all of the applicants are accepted, the Arctic Council will consist of eight members, six permanent participants and close to 50 observers.
But there is concern among some of the permanent participants, the six nongovernmental organizations that represent indigenous peoples in the Arctic, that their voices will be diluted as the number of observers expands.
Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council said the ICC will “enthusiastically accept” observers on the condition that they understand the Inuit position and “they have demonstrated prior support to indigenous peoples before, have a demonstrated respectful relationship with indigenous peoples in their own midst, and that they have a positive plan on how to relate to Inuit in a mutually beneficial manner,” she said. “We expect that the Arctic Council will continue to be vigilant about the voice of Inuit not to be diluted by observers.”
The Arctic Council’s criteria for observer status underscore respect for Arctic indigenous people and the willingness to work with the council’s permanent participants and other Arctic indigenous people.
Balton said on Friday that observers play an important role in the Arctic Council’s work. There are partnerships between observers and permanent participants, for example. “A number of observers, particularly the observer states, contribute to the ability of the permanent participants to engage in the work,” said Balton.
“More voices, opinions and ideas in the Arctic Council is always better,” said Jim Gamble, executive director of the Aleut International Association. “Of course there are observers with whom we have disagreements on issues, but we don’t always agree with the Arctic Member States either and our feeling is that it’s better to have those we disagree with in the room where we can discuss our point of view. Rejecting observer applications to the Arctic Council won’t change what those observers do; it will only change our opportunities to have access to those observers.”
Balton said that he hoped that the Arctic Council will have made a decision on whether to admit the applicants as observers by the end of the U.S. chairmanship, in April 2017, when Finland will take over the helm.
The U.S. has begun working with Finland to ensure a good transition, Balton said. In addition to going over the “nuts and bolts” of the work, the U.S. has identified some thematic areas and projects that may need continued attention beyond the their chairmanship, in particular, the task force on Arctic Telecommunications Infrastructure.
Finland is expected to present its proposed priorities at the next meeting of the Senior Arctic Officials, which will take place in Portland, Maine on October 4-6. Balton said that meeting is also likely to focus on the Arctic’s indigenous groups and energy issues.
Top image: Senior Arctic Officials from the eight Arctic States and the six permanent participant organizations met in Fairbanks, Alaska last week. (Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström)