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Reports: Arctic Council Due for a Change

HIGH NORTH NEWS: Now in its 20th year, the Arctic Council is due for revitalization. This is the conclusion of two new reports from the think-tanks CSIS in Washington and FNI in Oslo. However, a general consensus about how the organization should look at its next milestone is a long way off.

Written by Berit Enge Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Now in its 20th year, the Arctic Council is ready for revitalization, according to two new reports.Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström, CC BY-NC-ND

When the Arctic Council was established in 1996, it received a restricted mandate that focused on research and the environment. At the time, the Arctic was a field for enthusiasts only. Today, the High North has become a global affair and the work of the Arctic Council is watched from all corners.

These changes are evident in the long list of non-Arctic parties who want to participate in the work of the Arctic Council: 12 states and 11 organizations have obtained observer status so far, while others have also expressed a desire to participate.

The eight Arctic states in the Arctic Council (the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland) are reluctant to open the work of the Arctic Council to non-Arctic states and organizations, but they are under pressure both to admit new observers and to allow these observers new levels of participation in the Council’s work.

Two influential think-tanks have recently analyzed the challenges the Arctic Council faces at the commencement of its third decade. Both the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) in Oslo believe it is necessary to consider changes to the Arctic Council’s structure, working methods and participants, although the two reach different conclusions about how such changes should be implemented.

While the CSIS warns that the Arctic Council risks becoming irrelevant if transformational change is not implemented in the near future, the FNI highlights that the existence of significant disagreement between the Arctic parties regarding change suggests that a more gradual and circumspect approach is required.

Comprehensive Reform

The report “An Arctic Redesign,” written by Heather Conley, the director of the CSIS’s Arctic program, and researcher Matthew Melino, was recently presented in Washington. In the report, which is developed with support from Finland following roundtable discussions in Washington and Helsinki, Conley argues for the implementation of comprehensive reforms to ensure that the Arctic Council does not lose the battle for influence and attention in the North.

The challenges presented by climate change, economic development and a changed security situation mean that the Arctic Council has to think new and bigger. The CSIS outlines several possible scenarios for the near future, and points to security policy as a possible aspect of the Council’s future work.

“The Arctic Council has fulfilled its role as it was defined in 1996. But the time has come to look at how the Council can ensure its relevance for the next 20 years. The report is a contribution to thinking non-traditionally and ‘out of the box,’” said Conley.

The FNI seeks innovative thinking about the Arctic Council. As the background for the report “The Arctic Council: Vision, Structure and Participation,” senior researcher Svein Vigeland Rottem interviewed Arctic representatives from Norway, Denmark, the U.S. and Canada. The FNI argues that the Arctic Council needs change and recommends measures for strengthening coordination and establishing a clearer vision in the work to come.

However, as Rottem highlights, there is significant disagreement about which aspects of the Council should changed and to what degree, a situation that discourages the prescription of specific solutions.

Norway’s Arctic Ambassador Else Berit Eikeland agrees with the researchers that the Arctic Council needs revitalization, and calls the FNI report interesting.

“It will be important to find a more significant strategic role for the Arctic Council. It all started with cooperation on the environment and science, and development has been a ‘bottom-up’ process. Now that the world has changed, we must dare to think anew. We need a broad perspective, and we must think carefully about what we in the Arctic countries want from the Arctic Council,” said Eikeland.

When the Time Comes

The CSIS outlines four possible scenarios for the work of the Arctic Council over the coming years:

  1. Continue as before, maintain the Council’s limited mandate and participation;
  2. Implement limited changes, which clarify the status of observers and hold member and observer states to account should they fail to deliver upon the Council’s recommendations;
  3. Maintain the Arctic Council’s focus on the environment but allow the Council to coordinate other Arctic decision-making bodies, such as the Arctic Economic Forum and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum;
  4. Develop a completely new structure for the Arctic Council, creating an organization for security and cooperation modelled on the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), and agree upon a mandate that comprises economic, environmental and security policy aspects.

One of the CSIS’s main points is the possibility of other forums with broader participation taking over the leader role in the Arctic context, should the Arctic Council fail to carry out necessary changes. The report highlights the U.S.-led GLACIER Conference in Alaska in 2015 and the Arctic Circle in Iceland as examples of the sidelining of the Arctic Council by member states in arenas where greater international participation and attention are aims.

The CSIS questions whether the reforms being carried out within the Arctic Council will produce meaningful change and questions whether the Council will be able to achieve more than adjustments in the years to come.

In Need of a Clearer Vision

The FNI’s report highlights the need for a clearer vision for the Arctic Council’s future work and the necessity of better coordination between the large number of parties involved in the Arctic. The FNI recommends a regular Arctic summit in order to look ahead and agree on governing priorities for future work.

The report also recommends that the Council appoint an expert committee to look at coordination, overlapping focus areas and possible restructuring of working group activities. At the same time, it is necessary to consider the “extreme variation” in opinion about which measures are necessary, and the FNI highlights that structural change cannot be implemented without a thorough review. The report reveals significant coordination challenges at the national level, and recommends that the chairmanship, which rotates biennially, arrange an annual “Arctic Week” to draw attention to the work of the Council and to strengthen coordination between Arctic parties, nationally and internationally.

Norway’s Arctic Ambassador Eikeland highlights that the Arctic Council has discussed changes to the Council’s work over a long period of time and argues that the U.S. chairmanship has been doing a good job driving that process forward.

“We must develop a broader agenda for the Arctic Council. We should have a governing perspective and involve all parties. But the Council must remain a peaceful and consensus-based forum for cooperation,” she said.

This story originally appeared in High North News under the title “Arktisk råd er modent for revisjon,” and is republished here with permission.

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