On March 3, 2022, the Arctic Council became the latest collateral casualty to the Russian invasion in Ukraine. A mere week after Russian troops began invading and bombarding Ukraine, seven members of the Arctic Council (Canada, United States, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland) condemned the belligerent actions of its eighth member, Russia. Their condemnation also included pausing the work of the Council as well as all of its subsidiaries immediately and until further notice. The indefinite hold on the activities of such an important forum for international cooperation will inevitably have severe impact regionally and internationally on salient topics, namely, consultation with indigenous peoples, mitigating climate change and regulating sustainable exploitation of natural resources.
What is the Arctic Council?
Twenty-five years ago, under the crumbling of the Soviet Union and a rapidly evolving global awareness regarding climate change and environmental protection, the eight countries located in the Arctic region (Canada, United States, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Russia) signed the Ottawa Declaration in 1996 which officially created the Arctic Council. The Ottawa Declaration built on the success of the previous Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) or Finnish Initiative in 1991 and the Nuuk Declaration in 1993. Specifically, the Ottawa Declaration was instrumental in giving a robust structure and path forward to the mechanisms already in place, including emphasizing the importance of sustainable development in the region and maintaining cooperation at all levels among member states.
Since its inception, the Council has been incredibly active and productive in its multiple working groups which create a platform of cooperation and sharing of ideas among the eight member states as well as permanent participants representing indigenous peoples. The six permanent members of the Council are thus far: Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Saami Council. Since the Iqaluit Ministerial meeting in 1998, the Council has also included observers. Observers are invited to meetings of the Arctic Council, they can make statements, propose projects through member states or permanent participants and actively participate in the working groups. Observers have historically included non-members states with an interest in the Arctic such as Germany, France, China or India; intergovernmental organizations such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) or the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); and non-governmental organizations such as the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA) or the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).
Despite initial criticism on the solely consultative nature of the forum, the Council has successfully managed to create three legally binding international treaties. They are the 2011 Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic and the 2017 Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation. Furthermore, a permanent secretariat was established in Tromsø, Norway to oversee the administration and functioning of the Council.
However, all of this tremendously productive activity came to an abrupt end in March 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Federation had just begun its rotating presidency of the Council, when the other seven member states declared that they ceased working with Moscow. As I mentioned before, this sudden cessation of work will have a significant impact in three major areas: consultation with indigenous peoples, mitigation of climate change and exploitation of natural resources.
Impact on Indigenous Peoples
The Arctic Council is unique because it is the only international body in the world where indigenous peoples sit at the same table with national governments to discuss and make decisions together. Without the Council, it will be significantly more difficult, if not impossible for indigenous peoples to talk one on one with national governments, let alone multiple states at once. The absence of such a forum significantly hinders the ability of indigenous peoples in the region to contribute and to raise awareness about their issues and perspectives with multiple heads of states. As the region rapidly changes due to climate change, it has become imperative, now more than ever, for indigenous peoples to be able to contribute and impact the international agenda on environmental preservation, climate change mitigation and how it affects their livelihoods.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it patent that regional and international coordination in the Arctic, especially at times of emergency demands a robust dialogue with indigenous peoples and their leaders. A combination of lack of adequate health infrastructure, digital and technological divide as well as geographical isolation became the perfect storm conditions as the pandemic unfolded in the region. However, through the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group, efforts were put in place to monitor the situation and to provide recommendations to all parties. Some of these recommendations were crafted taking into consideration the local experience and knowledge of the indigenous peoples. Working through the already familiar platform and channels provided by the Arctic Council allowed indigenous peoples to provide national governments with data and stories about the reality on the ground, what resources they needed and also what local solutions and channels they could provide and utilize.
Impact on Climate Change
Without an international forum to help sharing information and standardizing environmental protections and policies, efforts to combat climate change in the Arctic region will simply fail to face the immense challenges currently taking place and those coming ahead. No one country could combat alone the threat of rising temperatures and disappearance of ecosystems in the area. The Arctic Council’s Working Group on Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna has provided consequential data for decades showing that the Arctic region is experiencing more dramatic and alarming consequences due to climate change than other parts of the world. From 1971-2019, the annually averaged Arctic near-surface air temperature increased by 3.1 Celsius degrees, three times faster than the global average. Total annual precipitation in the Arctic (rain and snow combined) increased by more than 9% during the same span of time. Arctic permafrost has warned by 2-3 Celsius degrees since the 1970s. Gathering, monitoring and analyzing this important data and sharing it among policy makers in national governments and internationally will be close to impossible without the important work conducted at the Arctic Council.
Impact on Sustainable Development
Fragile, unique and interconnected ecosystems in the Arctic require cooperation and transparency. No one country can unilaterally engage in sustainable development or any development whatsoever in the area without affecting other countries and indigenous nations. The recent 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, most commonly known as COP26, which took place in Glasgow, Scotland also reiterated how much the Arctic has become the centerstage for climate change’s impact on our planet, and how much there is to do. The continuous threat and challenges to livelihoods and development in the region are not going anywhere despite the cessation of work at the Council and the risk of remilitarization of the region increases without a forum to cooperate peacefully. Climate change and rise in temperatures have also provided a window of opportunity for governments to access and exploit new commercial shipping routes. Without the Council, the region risks falling prey to competing national ambitions of Arctic countries as well as others in the world and leaving indigenous peoples living in the area powerless against these threats.