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IPI graduate researcher, B. Ray, investigates non-Arctic nation-states and Indigenous participation on the Arctic Council

January 30, 2016

Originally posted: January 2016

The Future of the Arctic is a Team Venture


The re-emergence of the Arctic carries a host of political, economic, and social issues, which require careful planning and communication between international, national, subnational and local levels of governance. The potential to succeed is great, but thus far the costs have been even greater.


The Arctic, as a world region, has been relatively dormant on the international political scene since the end of the Cold War. With the increased rates of climate change and the bellwether status the Arctic embodies through sea ice loss, the Arctic has returned to the international stage – both due to the economic opportunities that arise from global warming as well as the domestic and international political and social problems that have resulted from a politically neglected domain. These opportunities have drawn interest from Arctic inhabitants as well as those far from the Arctic, much to the chagrin of many who live there. The Arctic is home to approximately four million people, an estimated 10% of which are Indigenous. These Indigenous peoples live within nation-states but the Indigenous groups often transcend nation-state borders, which creates an interesting dynamic in developing a unified voice for collective governance – especially when nation states do not provide coherent messaging or support for their own Indigenous groups. This outside interest has the potential to bring a wealth of knowledge and financial support to address the social and environmental issues that have arisen in the Arctic, but thus far there has not been concerted effort by Arctic nations or Indigenous groups to tap into this resource. However, the majority of the blame falls on domestic governments for their inaction to address the cause or symptoms of these issues. Prior to developing the region for economic and political interests, an effort needs to be made to secure the health and livelihood of its inhabitants.

Three main sections

Unpacking Arctic Geopolitics

The Arctic has the boon of relatively peaceful international relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, thanks in part to the Arctic Council. This intergovernmental forum is comprised of eight Arctic member states, six permanent participants from the Indigenous groups living in the Arctic, and 30 observers – ranging from non-Arctic nation states to nongovernmental organizations. Through its working groups and the rotating chairmanship, the Arctic Council has focused on issues ranging from climate change and pollutants to search and rescue and Indigenous health. Within the past four years, the Arctic Council has developed two legally binding agreements on search and rescue and on oil spill response. All this work has been conducted without a specific regard to military security issues, which are notably absent from theOttawa Declaration.

However, the Arctic, as a region, is not immune to the effects of non-Arctic geopolitics. The intervention in Syria, annexation of Crimea, and support for eastern Ukrainian cessation have strained political relations between Russia and many western nations, including those on the Arctic Council. This has led to economic sanctions between the West and Russia, including prohibitions on assists with Arctic oil and gas development. Russia, meanwhile, has continued to build its presence in the Arctic, between planting a flagat the North Pole in 2007, military buildup in the Arctic, and the latest territorial claim to the Outer Continental Shelf through United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While these actions have not prohibited international agreements with Russia from occurring (i.e. Arctic fishing ban or division of the Barents Sea into economic zones), it is clear that non-Arctic matters have the strong potential to spill over into Arctic affairs.

Furthermore, the Arctic Council is subject to increasing presence from non-Arctic nations. In May 2013, six new member states were added as Observers to the Arctic Council, including China, India, and Singapore. The addition of this recent round of Observers was fairly controversial, as many feared their presence was motivated by purely economic gains and not in keeping with the spirit of the Arctic Council. Permanent Participants were especially leery, as China has historically disrespected its own Indigenous populations – why should another country’s Indigenous groups be any different? This hesitancy was combined with general confusion over the role of Observers on the Arctic Council. While their presence has been sanctioned in the Arctic Council since the Ottawa Declaration, there was never a clearly defined role for Observers. This issue was finally acknowledged with the Arctic Council Observer Manual in 2013, incorporation into the Iqaluit Declaration in April, and a special session of the Senior Arctic Officials meeting to discuss engagement of Observers in October. However, the Arctic Council decided not to admit new observers during its Iqaluit Ministerial Meeting until these issues are resolved.

Economic Drivers

Much of the drive for development and activity in the Arctic comes from the “opportunities” provided by melting ice. Diminished summer sea ice extent opens the possibility for transit through the Northern or Northwest Passages. This could potentially reduce transit time and cost for major shipping lanes that use the Suez or Panama Canals. In addition, an estimated 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves are thought to exist in the Arctic outer continental shelves – which will spend longer periods in ice-free conditions. There has been substantial exploration for reserves in the Arctic already. This increase in activity necessitates more infrastructure for transport of natural resources, providing supplies to workers, responding to any potential casualties (i.e. oil spills, missing or stranded vessels). However, major companies like Shell and Gazprom have found major setbacks with offshore oil, diminishing the immediacy of this need. In addition, the inability to provide substantial lead time of sea ice predictability combined with the severe lack of icebreakers means these shipping routes will not be commercially viable in the near future, even though some vessel traffic is already using these routes.

Regardless of the time scale on which shipping or resource extraction becomes viable, these two ventures will likely happen, leading to a necessity for development in the Arctic exists. Much of the existing infrastructure in the Arctic has eroded since the Cold War, and local economies are largely based on subsistence living. Arctic economic development was a primary focus of the recent Canadian chair of the Arctic Council, with the creation of the Arctic Economic Council. The Council, which has only existed for a year, exists as a independent forum between the business community and the Arctic Council, although how independent this organization will be remains to be seen. Similar efforts to share pan-Arctic best practices among business professionals also exist through the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s Arctic Caucus. While these business organizations have the support and structure to carry out their missions and are inclusive of Indigenous groups, these top-down institutions are unlikely to be as effective at fostering an entrepreneurial climate in regions that do not inherently desire Western business practices.

No Inuk Left Behind

Arctic Indigenous groups are faced with a wide range of issues that hinder their health and livelihood. Contaminants, like mercury, bioaccumulate in the species that Indigenous groups eat, leading to blood mercury levels well over the EPA established limits, as well as reduced food security. Communities, likeShishmaref and Kivalina, are eroding into the sea and will be forced to relocate from the homes that they have inhabited for centuries. Indigenous groups have developed high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and depression, likely due to a growing disconnect with their cultural identity. Politicians and bureaucrats who have no experience in the region make many of the resource management and development decisions that affect Indigenous groups, completely disenfranchising those populations and disregarding their local expertise. While Indigenous groups have been very protective of their own communities, they receive limited assistance from their federal government and have suffered from a lack of federal policy addressing these issues.

Arctic Indigenous groups experience unique opportunities and challenges when examining climate change in the Arctic. The Inuit helped reframe climate change as a human rights issue, when then-Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2005 to limit greenhouse gas emissions that are disproportionately harming the Arctic environment, and thus Inuit livelihood. The petition was largely based on the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which was sponsored by the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee, and involved significant participation from Indigenous groups. This action, which garnered Watt-Cloutier a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, spurred significant discussion and movement on adaptation funding through the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Inuit have continued to be at the forefront of advocating for climate change mitigation and adaptation, including the recent UNFCCC’s 21st Conference of Parties.

While the several of the Indigenous groups have joined Many Strong Voices, along with the Small Island Developing States, to raise awareness of climate impacts and help support those affected communities in international negotiations, the outcome of this support has been less than desired – the funding from the UNFCCC Adaptation and Green Climate Funds is geared toward developing countries. This does not help Arctic Indigenous groups, which inhabit developed nations. Thus, the dilemma is introduced: Indigenous groups, which received insufficient support from their own countries, obtained an international solution that cannot benefit them. Although countries have figuratively sat at the table with their Indigenous groups at the Arctic Council (the notable exception of Russia, which banned its Indigenous group in November 2012), there has not been a firm inclusion by nation states. Until domestic Arctic policies start including Indigenous groups in policy development and decision-making (i.e. U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic Region calls for increased usage of traditional knowledge and consultation on federal policies affecting Alaskan Native communities), Indigenous groups will continue to be disenfranchised.


The Arctic Council is often praised for its collaborative approach to governance and its ability to include the perspectives of all who are concerned with the region. Given this, it is surprising that the Arctic Council has not found a way to effectively include the Observers in ways that are beneficial to the Arctic region. Most of the observed nation states are developed countries and can provide support for research, assistance in working groups, etc. Regardless of whether Arctic development is desired, it seems inevitable – and doing so in a manner where those who live there can collaborate with those who will be using the Arctic for shipping, resource extraction, and other purposes, will have the greatest benefit to develop in a sustainable and socially conscious manner. Thus, concrete steps need to be made to integrate Observers into the workload of the Arctic Council, while preserving the decision-making for the member states. This will help promote the cooperative governance model, and also help prevent any other international affairs issues from spilling over into Arctic matters.

While the dialogue for these interactions can commence from government, business, or other outside entities, the Indigenous groups need to be leading the discussion. As cultures that have adjusted to the ways of settlers in their lands, they are the most knowledgeable as to what the unique challenges are, environmentally or socially. Depriving this traditional knowledge from the domains of policy formation and decision-making is a tremendous detriment to progress. However, the organizations that represent Indigenous peoples (i.e. Alaskan Athabaskan Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Saami Council) are also limited in personnel and resources. This can be partially rectified byincreasing funding to these organizations to build capacity, an effort which Jim Gamble, the Executive Director of the Aleut International Association, has been spearheading. With additional funding, these organizations can hire more staff and better guide Arctic development efforts.

Lastly, while countries met recently to negotiate climate change adaptation and mitigation in Paris at COP 21, including pledges of donations to the UNFCCC’s Green Climate and Adaptation funds to assist developing countries that cannot afford large adaptation measures, there was very little discussion on how the developed countries were going to address adaptation within their own borders. This neglect is most crucial in the Arctic, where climate change has caused and is causing numerous environmental and social effects, destroying the livelihoods of those who rely on sea ice to fish and hunt. While there is some hope that this trend will reverse, given President Obama’s recent visit to Alaska and Canada’s appointment ofInuk Hunter Tootoo as the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, domestic governments, whether at federal or sub-federal levels, must make a more concerted effort to address these impacts. Knowing that climate change is a very politicized topic, these impacts should be reframed in a less controversial way to ensure success (i.e. food security, health impacts). Despite the framing, these issues should be addressed at home before the international community needs to fund our adaptation projects.

About the author

Brandon Ray is a master’s student at University of Washington’s Department of Atmospheric Science. His research interests include sea ice predictability in the Arctic as well as how climate change policy has been incorporated into national security strategies in the Arctic. Brandon serves as a graduate researcher for the Jackson School’s new International Policy Institute and will serve as the graduate assistant for the JSISG Task Force on the Arctic: The Arctic – A New Player in International Relations, Winter Quarter, 2016. This essay links the expert presentations made at The Arctic Council at Twenty symposium held at the UW on November 20, 2016 with future considerations and policy options for the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council at Twenty was sponsored by the Jackson School’s Canadian Studies Center and UW’s Future of Ice and sponsored by the Korea Maritime Institute.