Canada this week will replace Sweden as the chair of the Arctic Council, a high-level forum for co-operation, co-ordination and interaction between Arctic states, indigenous groups and other parties who share an interest in the development of the Arctic.
Canada will serve as chair for two years before being succeeded by the United States in 2015.
Little-known and not well understood, the Arctic Council is blamed or credited for many issues for which it has no mandate. To clarify any misconceptions, here is a primer on the Arctic Council.
The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as an outgrowth of a Finnish initiative, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. Canadian leadership was instrumental in the establishment of the Arctic Council and establishing its core mandate. Canada assumed the inaugural chair of the Arctic Council in 1996, represented very ably by Mary Simon.
The mandate of the council is focused on two central principles: sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. Arctic security, territorial disputes and other issues are not within the Arctic Council's purview. The eight member states are located on or near the Arctic Ocean: Canada, Russia, U.S., Denmark (Greenland and Faroe Islands), Norway (the so-called Arctic 5 or littoral states) and Finland, Sweden and Iceland. These states are the only members of the Arctic Council with voting rights, but votes are rarely taken.
Participation in the Arctic Council extends far beyond the Arctic states. There are six permanent participants representing international aboriginal groups of the Arctic, three of which represent peoples from Canada. The permanent participants have special status -- all decisions made by the Arctic Council must consider their input. There are also observers representing non-Arctic states (six in total), non-governmental organizations (11) and international organizations (nine). For example, Germany is an observer, as well as the World Wildlife Federation and the UN Environmental Program.
Any state or organization can apply for observer status, which means they are invited to meetings but have no vote. To apply for observer status, the interested party must apply to the chair in writing. China, India, the EU and Greenpeace, for example, have expressed interest in becoming observers. Proof they will support and contribute to the work of the council is required for their acceptance. States and organizations may apply for ad hoc observer status on a meeting-by-meeting basis.
The main "products" of the Arctic Council are policy recommendations and guidelines. These are usually drawn from the assessments of the council's six working groups, ad hoc "task forces" and experts.
The council's major accomplishments include: the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and the recent Agreement on Co-operation in Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (otherwise known as the SAR Agreement), signed by the eight Arctic states.
The council has no enforcement capabilities or jurisdiction. The SAR is binding on the eight states, not the council. The next major output is expected to be an oil-spill response agreement.
Funding is a challenge, as the council is dependent on state contributions. Though formed by a declaration, it cannot operate independently from the eight Arctic states, nor can it obligate other states or organizations to take specific measures. Some consider this lack of enforcement capability a weakness, while others consider it a great strength, as it encourages more participation before recommendations are made.
Canada's two-year chair will be led by Canada's health minister, Leona Aglukkaq. The government has established three primary objectives for the Arctic Council under Canada's leadership: responsible Arctic resource development, safe Arctic shipping and sustainable circumpolar communities.
Though it has been suggested that Canada address Arctic militarization, that is an issue for states, not the council, which is prohibited from discussing military security or threats, of which there are few in the Arctic.
Canada is taking over the chair at a critical time, as a warming global climate simultaneously presents new economic opportunities and environmental perils in the Arctic. Canada must use its leadership to refocus attention on creating healthy, vibrant Arctic communities by working collaboratively with the permanent participants on the council who represent Arctic aboriginal groups. Canada has been one of the laggards of the eight Arctic states in terms of the well-being of its Arctic inhabitants; it now finds itself in a position to potentially improve this image. Many hopes are pinned on Aglukkaq, who knows well the challenges and opportunities of living (as opposed to visiting) the Arctic. Let's hope Canada's contribution amounts to more than good intentions.
Andrea Charron is assistant professor and deputy director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Defence and Security Studies. Richard Farthing-Nicol is an undergraduate student at the University of Manitoba and has won a research grant to study the Arctic with Dr. Charron this summer.